In This Episode
Reporter Eric Garcia’s new book — “We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation” — springs from his experience as a political correspondent and autistic person. Frustrated with the myths and stereotypes about autism found in the media, he set out to report on what autism really looks like and to ask autistic people what they really want and need.
Ana Marie Cox: Hi, I’m Anne-Marie Cox, and welcome to With Friends Like These. This week I’m talking to writer Eric Garcia. He’s covered politics for a long time in Washington, and currently he’s the senior Washington correspondent for the Independent. In fact, when we recorded this week, Eric was sitting on the third floor of the Capitol building in D.C., waiting for the latest on the debt ceiling negotiations. Eric is autistic, and if that surprises you, well, it’s not your fault. Our culture still holds on to a lot of stereotypes and myths about autism, including the idea that Eric, as an autistic person with a real job and independent life, is high functioning, whereas other autistic people might be low functioning. I wanted to have Eric on the show to talk about these stereotypes and myths and his first book out right now, We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation. He wrote it because being both a reporter and autistic person, he was frustrated with how the media covered autism, and how policy failures have been the result of misconceptions and stereotypes. Stay tuned for a conversation about the difference between curing autism and actually supporting autistic people.
Ana Marie Cox: Eric, welcome to the show.
Eric Garcia: Thank you for having me.
Ana Marie Cox: So I think I want to start with the language about autism. All of us good liberals, we want to do people first, that’s sort of the progressive trend. And that would be like a person with disabilities. Now I know we alcoholics kind of reject that. Some of us do. I do. I don’t want to be a person with a chemical dependency disorder. Like, I’m a drunk. You know, I’m a fucking alcoholic. It’s part of who I am. Talk about the autistic community and how that discussion has been.
Eric Garcia: Yeah. So this is a really important thing. I think that for a long time, parents and clinicians and social workers and people like that wanted to do person first language and thought that well, we want you to see the person, not the disability. Whereas a lot of autistic people now have grown up have said that, no, we need you to see the disability. And more than seeing the disability, we need to see that is an inextricable part of who this person is. And I think that’s why you’ve seen a push toward identity first language. At the same time, there are plenty of people in the intellectual disability community, so that’s how you can have terms like an autistic person with an intellectual disability. So it varies, but like I think that tends to be the default language.
Ana Marie Cox: How did this book come about, Eric?
Eric Garcia: Good question. I don’t know if you know him, do you know, Tim Mack.
Ana Marie Cox: I do. Yes.
Eric Garcia: Yes. Yeah. So I was at a party—
Ana Marie Cox: Editor of The Daily Beast, or an editor at The Daily Beast.
Eric Garcia: Used to be a reporter at The Daily Beast, now he’s at NPR.
Ana Marie Cox: Oh, OK.
Eric Garcia: And what happened is I went to a party at his house and he offered me a drink and I said, I can’t drink because the medicine I take because I’m autistic doesn’t mix with alcohol. Later on, I kind of developed a drinking problem, but you know, that’s a story for another day. But, you know, and instead of him saying, Oh, come on, have a drink, he was like, Oh, there’s a lot of autistic people in Washington, you should write something about that. And I thought, you know, when I get better as a journalist and I was, I was 24 at the time, I was new to DC. I was pretty happy as a reporter covering economics and politics. You know, that was what I was doing. And I would have been happy to do that for the rest of my life, and I am happy to do that for the rest of my life. Then what happened was I was working at National Journal at the time and the print magazine was going to close. So I pitched this article. Because Tim was like, you should write something about what it’s like to be autistic in D.C. and because there’s a lot of autistic people, kind of like a fun, chatty kind of, you know what I mean? Like high society, kind of like the secret lives of autistic people in D.C., those kind of pieces that the kind of this town, kind of weird kind of pieces that, like people like to, people just gobble up, like the kind of stuff that people read in the Politico Playbook, you know? But but then like, I pitched this piece to Richard Just and he was like, OK, why should this piece exist? I said, Well, I think we focus too much on trying to cure autistic people and not enough on trying to help autistic people live fulfilling lives. He’s like, there’s your piece. Go! And what was happening is at the time, I don’t know if you remember, this is in 2015, if you remember at the beginning of the year, there was that big measles outbreak at Disneyland. And then when I was writing, you know, Donald Trump was starting to run for president. And if you remember, he said, that autism has become an epidemic and he blamed the vaccines. And so what that said to me was I was like, Wait, you know? And then, of course, Barack Obama had talked about curing autism in 2013. So what that had told me was I was like, Wait, you know, I grew up in California. You know, those people who don’t vaccinate the kids, they’re a bunch of liberals and hippies, you know, they’re just crunchy, weird yoga moms who don’t want to vaccinate their kids and give them The Autism! And then Trump, he may be, but a lot of people will call non-Orthodox Republican, but he’s still a Republican. You know, I think that’s what happened to me was I was just thinking to myself, Well, we have a lot of bad information about autism, and I’m a political reporter and I’m a journalist who covers autism, who writes about politics and was just like, Well, if we’re getting bad information, then we must have a lot of bad policy about autism. So that piece comes out. And the next question is, well, what does it look like to be autistic across America? So I kind of hit the road and, you know, to try to figure that out, you know? And I went to West Virginia, I went to Nashville, Tennessee, I went to Michigan. I went to the Bay Area of California, I went Pittsburgh, and I did some reporting here in Washington, D.C., where I live.
Ana Marie Cox: A big part of your book is deconstructing autistic stereotypes. That’s the hitting the road part. Maybe we should start with the stereotypes.
Eric Garcia: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: And then kind of debunk them. How about that?
Eric Garcia: That works. Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: OK. So I could go if you want like, I could tell you what I think the stereotypes are.
Eric Garcia: Yeah, yeah, tell me what you think the stereotypes are because like you know, yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: So it’s Rain Man, right?
Eric Garcia: Yeah, yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: Like, that’s the big one, which means an autistic person is socially awkward, repetitive about stuff, a savant, perhaps in some area, avoids eye contact and also they’re all men. They’re all white.
Eric Garcia: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: I’m trying think if I missed anything. If they’re good at something, it’s probably in a STEM field. And I’m trying to think of other stuff. Oh, and they’re incapable of empathy.
Eric Garcia: Yes!
Ana Marie Cox: They’re incapable of empathy.
Eric Garcia: We have no empathy whatsoever for anything. Yes.
Ana Marie Cox: So where do you want to start?
Eric Garcia: So, yeah, let’s let’s go with the Rain Man thing. So like, I, you know, I ride Rain Man hard a lot but what’s interesting is that Rain Man didn’t even accurately get autism at the time. So if you remember in the movie Rain Man at the end he goes back to the institution. It was interesting is that the two character, the two people that Dustin Hoffman portrayed his character off of, a guy by the name of Joe Sullivan and another guy with the name of Peter Guthrie, both of them, neither of them were ever institutionalized. They lived with their families. They had loving families and they were never institutionalized. But it was the clinicians and the consultants on them on the movie who said, This is unrealistic, a fairy tale ending, you need, you need to change this. So they changed it, you know? And then on top of that, I think that to your point, that like a lot of autistic people are only good to like math or STEM or things like that. I’m got a C in mathematics. I barely passed. I took a computer coding class because I thought there’d be a little bit easier than math. And like, it was just no, I squeaked by that class with a C minus. You know, I think the other one, you know that it’s something that, like everybody is a hyper-savant. Very few autistic people are savants. I think there’s oen survey, there’s one sort of like back in the ’90s that said it was like only 10% of all autistic people are savants. And then on top of that, that they have no empathy. That’s just ridiculous. If anything, I would argue that autistic people have more empathy than a lot of other people do. It’s just that oftentimes we can’t tell, but we have trouble reading the social cues or social signals, but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel anything. It doesn’t mean that as soon as we I mean, you know, as soon as we recognize we’ve hurt someone or somebody is going through something, then we immediately feel bad, you know? I think a lot of times people think, a lot of people misinterpret that as saying that we don’t have empathy. The other one is, yeah, that it, that it is, you know, mostly white males. You know that that’s the big one. And that goes back to the beginning and it goes back to the first study on autism was with 11 kids as Johns Hopkins University, which is not too far from where I live, I live in Washington, D.C., but, you know, of the 11 children who were first surveyed in a study at Johns Hopkins in 1943, a study that came out of 1943, nine of them were white and Anglo-Saxon, two of them were Jewish, and on top of that, eight of them were boys and three of them were girls. So that was one of the other things. Then also, you know, the idea that autistic people are only able to work in, you know, STEM fields. I work in media, I work in journalism. And then also on top of that, you know, there are a lot of autistic people who don’t live in institutions that can live fulfilling lives of outside of institutions. And they should live, you know they live with their families or they live independently and they can do it. And so I think those are the big ones.
Ana Marie Cox: And of course, there are many problems with stereotypes in general. It’s bad to have stereotypes. But one of the particular ways that stereotypes about autism have an impact on autistic people—and you write about this a lot—is that it reduces the chances of someone getting diagnosed and getting proper support.
Eric Garcia: Yes. Precisely, yes. So if you think of, because our ideas of autism are so shaped by this is something that affects white boys, a lot of times girls don’t get diagnosed until much later if they get diagnosed at all. A lot of times they have to have a coinciding disability that they need, oh, they have an intellectual disability or they get diagnosed as something else instead of autism. Plenty of times, people of color get diagnosed with behavioral disorders or conduct disorders, or they don’t just don’t get diagnosed at all, or they get diagnosed later than their white counterparts. On top of that, there are also a lot of the tools, the diagnostic tools are done solely in English. So a lot of people for whom English as a second language, particularly Latinos or Asian Americans, or even people whose families are from Africa, they often don’t get diagnosed until much later. So what happens is that because we have this set idea of who, who can be autistic, we wind up missing a lot of other people.
Ana Marie Cox: And you delve into this in the book a little further, but I’ll mention that especially for people of color this can be a deadly misdiagnosis to not be diagnosed with autism, to instead have oppositional disorder, even ADHD. That creates a situation that, you know, people of color already have to behave perfectly, right?
Eric Garcia: Right. Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: But if you are an undiagnosed autistic and you have interactions with the police, do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Eric Garcia: Yeah. Well, look, I mean, even if you do have a diagnosis, it’s not like you can, it’s not like, that’s the first thing the police see, right?
Ana Marie Cox: Right.
Eric Garcia: The police see your skin color. They don’t necessarily know if you are autistic. It’s not like, you know, like some places, you know, now they have a card where you can pull it out and say, Hey, I’m optimistic. But even then, like, do you really want to put your hand in your pocket to reach for your wallet? You know, especially if you can’t speak, especially if an autistic person can’t speak and if you put your hands in your wallet and you don’t signal that, of course, can lead to very, very dangerous consequences as well. So there’s not really, so it could be a really deadly—I’m not speaking out of turn here—the consequences can be deadly/ And it can lead to police violence, it can lead to people being killed. And it has led to people being killed. You know, even you know, there’s a big push nowadays to train police officers and how to handle autism. But even then, you know, there is a young man who I profile in the book who named Stefon Watts in like a suburb of Chicago. The police were trained in how to deal with him, and they still shot and killed him. So it’s not like this is something that could be trained away. This is something that really, I don’t know if this is something that police can or should handle.
Ana Marie Cox: Yes, there is a lot of debate about this. We shall not get into that debate right now.
Eric Garcia: We are going to get into that debate right now. We are not going to do that.
Ana Marie Cox: But I think that’s very compelling evidence for, for a big change in a lot of ways. I was thinking also about the misdiagnosis part for people of color, which is that if an autistic person, a person with autism, however, you want to say it is misdiagnosed and is a person of color, that just feeds the prison, the school-to-prison pipeline, for instance. Because the behavior issues just become like, Oh, you’re oppositional. Like, Oh, like, you just don’t obey the rules.
Eric Garcia: Yeah, I wasn’t able to go into that that much. That was something that I thought about much later. But plenty of autistic people have, especially autistic people of color have bad interactions with the police, and you’re seen as just having a defiant disorder or you just see, as having a bad attitude, then yeah, it probably can contribute to very, very negative consequences. You probably have very negative consequences. So I absolutely agree. I think that it can have deleterious effects and it can lead to people being being escorted to and from and through whether hither yonder through the incarceration, the criminal justice system—where there’s more of an emphasis on the criminal and there’s the justice.
Ana Marie Cox: You mentioned earlier that one of the reasons you wrote the original piece has to do with the fact that there’s this language around curing autism. I want to talk about that in the context of the distinction you make between parental activism, and self-advocacy. And autism kind of has a history with that parental activism.
Eric Garcia: Yeah, it does. I really kind of, not even bifurcate, I almost trifurcate. Is that even a word? I don’t know.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, sure. I deem it a word.
Eric Garcia: Yeah. Like, you know, I almost trifurcate the history of autism advocacy into like three sectors. There’s the beginning of it, which is from 1911, when it was first used by Eugen Bleuler all the way to 1943 with Leo Kanner in Baltimore and Hans Ausberger in Nazi-occupied Vienna, all the way to Bruno Bettelheim in the 1960s. There is very much this idea that the clinicians know best and like someone like Bruno Bettelheim argued that well, he argued that it was caused by unloving parents and like, well, it happens when you do that, when you saw the parents caused it? The first thing you do is take them away from the parents, right? You know, like and you know, put them in an institution and, remove the pictures of them, which is literally what happened, you know? And later on, we learned that that was what led to a lot of abuse. You know, we think a lot about something like Willowbrook, that was a very common, you know, those kind of facilities were very, very common. Then what happened is, I think in the 1960s, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you saw kind of a pivot from that to parent advocacy. And that was really about parents trying to absolve them of themselves of the blame that science gad put on them. And that was them trying to get their kids out of the institutions and trying to get their kids to live in their homes. But and that was, you know, people like, what’s his name, Bernard Rimland who wrote a book called “Infantile Autism” and I think that was what that book was called. But and then, you know, someone like Ruth Christ Sullivan, who was the mother of Joe Sullivan, who was the basis for Rain Man, one of the people who was based off of, and these were parents who wanted to, you know, improve their kids’ lives. But then what happened is there was even a split then because someone like Bernard Rimlind wanted an intense focus on cure. He supported a lot of things like changing diet and changing, and he even started, you know, popularizing all of the big promoters stateside of Andrew Wakefield’s ideas about vaccines.
Ana Marie Cox: And I’m just going to interrupt. Andrew Wakefield is notorious for being the charlatan who popularized the link between vaccines and autism. I also want to jump in really quick here because I think it’s an important point. So we have the beginning of autism studies, which is squarely it’s like you, you screwed up, parents, and we’re going to take the kids away because you screwed up so badly and they’re so damaged they can’t possibly live on their own. So there.
Eric Garcia: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: And then you have a move that seems like an improvement, and maybe it is an improvement.
Eric Garcia: Yeah, in some ways it was.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, where parents are like—see, in some ways it’s an improvement, some ways it isn’t—t’s the same thinking of something caused this, something caused this problem and we have to figure out what caused it. And we have to fix it.
Eric Garcia: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: And it wasn’t me. The parents are like, I know it wasn’t me and we have to find the thing that did it, right? And that was like a dominant way of thinking about autism for a long time.
Eric Garcia: Yeah it was. And I think it’s still is in lot of, a lot of circles. You know, I think that, you know, in 2016, the federal government and private entities, you know, private charities, something like $360 million on autism research and only like 2% of that money went to lifespan, to study lifespan issues and like something like 30%, 36% and I’m, you know, more than half of it was either dedicated to either biology or risk factors. And then even more of that budget was spent on, you know, treatments or things like that. So there is this kind of intense focus on science and biology. And this is, I think, where you see with something like Autism Speaks where they spent a ton of money on research and on biology. But then I think what’s happened since, so let’s let’s go to the third era, which I think is what happened is in the 1980s—you know, it’s important to remember autism didn’t get its own diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980. It was seen as a symptom of schizophrenia under the DSM, so it doesn’t get its own diagnosis in the DSM into the DSM 3 I believe and in 1980. Then you get PDDNOS, which is pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified. Then you get Asperger syndrome. After Lorna Wing, who was a British psychiatrist and researcher in the U.K., translated the works of Hans Asperger, who was, if not a Nazi in name, a Nazi in practice.
Ana Marie Cox: Let’s say problematic person. Yes, he’s a problematic person who worked with the Nazis.
Eric Garcia: Yeah, worked with the Nazi. I don’t care what your card says, or if you have a card, but if you send kids to a to a clinic where they die, you know that’s in Vienna, then you know, you’re basically a Nazi. So that happens. And then what also happens is in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act passes and more importantly, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passes. And why is that important? Well, that said is that the IDEA was basically a reauthorization of the Education for Handicapped Children Act and what happened is this go-round, is it said, specifically it included autism as a disability, and that was important because that basically said, OK, there are disabled, students with disability who are entitled to a free, appropriate public education. Any parent who is listening to this podcast knows what a FAPE is, or if you if you’ve ever had an IEP, you know what it is. But it’s important because what that meant is that now the schools have to report to the federal government how many children they were serving so you saw an increase in kids getting services and getting diagnoses. What’s happened now is that generation of kids—and I include myself in because I was born in that gener—I was born in 1990—we’ve grown up now. And what you see now is autistic people now have been able to start their own advocacy networks or advocacy groups. They are now able to protest. They are now able to speak out. They are now able to advocate for themselves. So while I wouldn’t say that we’ve entered a new era where the autistics health advocates are the main voice, what happens now is that any time anybody who isn’t autistic contends or talks about autism, immediately now autistic people have a voice and they can—or I shouldn’t say they have a voice, they always had a voice—but now it’s that their voice is heard and they can now push back, and they now have the means to push back.
Ana Marie Cox: I think you just drew this line pretty directly, but let’s drill down a second because this connection between having support and accommodations in a school and being able to advocate later, right? Like, that’s the big change, is that for the first time, autistic children are given the tools to be equal to get the same education and to not be cured, right? Like, in this particular case, it’s not like, Oh, there’s something wrong with you, we’re sending you away. It’s we’re going to support you.
Eric Garcia: Yeah, we’re going to support you. We’re going to give you the accommodations. And I should be, I should be completely clear that this wasn’t the windfall. This wasn’t—
Ana Marie Cox: Right, right, right.
Eric Garcia: Because the federal government was supposed to fund, I think, about 40% of IDEA. It’s only funded about like 14.67%, like something very, you know—I was thinking back, and during the 2020 presidential campaign, a lot of the, you know, a lot of the Democratic presidential campaigns released disability policies. One of the funny things to me was like one of the, one of the benchmarks they said was, I’m going to fully fund IDEA. And like, that’s great, but think about how low the bar is. It is considered a landmark thing that, oh, I’m just going to fully fund this thing that was passed 30 years ago, you know? And then you had some people like Bernie Sanders saying, we’re going to increase the amount of, the amount of money that we can spend on it. But like since so all those caveats mentioned, what it essentially did is it said that you are entitled to certain services and we’re going to try to accommodate you. We’re going to try to make sure that you’re learning. And one of the things that I often say that I often tell people, and you can appreciate this as a Texan, is one big reason why my mom liked George W. Bush growing up was because we lived in Texas and we got some of the best special education we could have had when Bush was governor of Texas.
Ana Marie Cox: It’s weird, like Texas does have pretty good, like, you know, special education and disability support. Like, not totally, but you mentioned this, like it’s just an odd little quirk of Texas.
Eric Garcia: Yeah, I don’t know, like, obviously, I haven’t been there in a long time, so I can’t speak for like Rick Perry or Greg Abbott but I know that like, I mean, George Bush, of course, his father passed the ADA in signed the [unclear]. And then even people I know who lived in Florida say, Look, we can talk to Jeb, and like even if we disagreed with them, he’d listen to us. You know? Which was—
Ana Marie Cox: Who knows? Who knows why that happened?
Eric Garcia: So, yeah, like this point is, is that you get this kind of like taste, you get this like fraction of a fraction of accommodations, but it’s, you know, [unclear] of a mustard seed, so to speak. You know, it’s like this little tiny amount allows for this incredible garden of people to, you know, to grow up and you think, what more could we do if we fully funded it, you know?
Ana Marie Cox: Right. I also think it’s just a shift in thinking about yourself. Right?
Eric Garcia: Yeah!
Ana Marie Cox: Like if you go to school and you’re being even just a little, I mean, even if there’s just maybe an attempt to accommodate me, right, like it’s an agency thing.
Eric Garcia: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: You grow up with a better sense of agency.
Eric Garcia: The school says you’re worth your time and your worth our money.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah.
Eric Garcia: Yeah. And that’s a powerful message to get to kids.
Ana Marie Cox: You write in the book that you had a hard time actually asking for accommodations. And that’s something, probably important to talk about because we just celebrated accommodations. But you yourself had trouble asking for them.
Eric Garcia: Yeah, I mean, it’s really weird, isn’t it? Because I had trouble asking for accommodations all the way through from when I was in community college to when I went to university, to when I went to work, when I’m, you know? And I think part of it is that the flip side of giving kids some amount, but not everything, is you’re told that, well, there are kids who really need the support. And it’s also the problem with using labels like high functioning and low functioning autism, is that if you arrive at community—even if you go to community college which a lot of autistic people do—and seem to do reasonably well in school, you kind of say that like, Well, I don’t really need accommodations. There are people who really need them but because I’m here and because I can, you know, get by and I don’t, you know, I don’t need that many accommodations. And it’s not, and you almost kind of shame yourself if you ask for them because you’re like, you know, I’m not really disabled. There are people who really need it, and I don’t want any special—it’s why I’m also not a fan of the term special needs because I think [unclear] special treatment, but I think rather than, equal treatment, you know. So I think that it was, you know, it leads to a certain stubbornness. And I think that especially if you go to the K-12 system and you see how onerous getting through and getting some kind of accommodations, you’re almost kind of just like, look, it’s not worth it. You know, like, you know, why even bother? So I think that happens and then it happens again, you know, when I go to university because again, it’s like, I’m at university, I can’t be that disabled, you know?
Ana Marie Cox: Right, right.
Eric Garcia: Which is just some internalized, ableism nonsense, you know, because you know, there are plenty of disabled people who go to college and go to university who are otherwise disabled but because of the way that we think about disability or say that, like, there’s the idea that disabled people can’t go to college, or they can’t, you know, belong or they can’t, you know, integrate fully. So there’s almost this idea that you shouldn’t ask for it because like, you know, you’re here, you know, and it is only after things went crashing down with, like one of my professors, when I tanked the test that I went to one of my professors, it was like literally the weekend, the Friday before like fall, or like the Wednesday before our fall break was supposed to begin and I went to and I was like, I’m disabled, I have autism, I need help. And then like, he could have easily said, you know, piss off, you know? But what he did is he—and I’ll never forget this, his name was Dr. David Peer, he was my professor, I was taking an elective class on African music—he called the disability student office, and he talked to them for like a few minutes. He said they’re waiting for you, go And this was right before a fall break, he could have easily said, I’m going, I’m gone, you know? But you know, I immediately raced down and I went, and then, you know, I started using the services that they offer, you know? But that, it’s been like, imagine if it went a different way. You know, I think about that all the time. You know, that’s my own kind of personal Marvel What If? But yea, like, I mean, I think about that a lot, and I think there are probably a lot of people like myself who think that, well, I must not be too disabled so I’m not going to ask for accommodations for themselves and they make things unnecessarily harder for themselves.
Ana Marie Cox: You mentioned high functioning and low functioning. I’ve heard before the criticism of that distinction or that description. Talk about it. Because, like you said, people might consider you high functioning, but that’s, those two poles are really bad way at looking, really bad way of looking at autism.
Eric Garcia: Yeah so I’m not a fan of them because—I mean, I say this as a journal, I say this [unclear]. I’m not as an advocate, activist, but just as a journalist—our job is to accurately describe things, right? You know, so I feel like they are inaccurate terms because they don’t, they describe more of what people see about autism about an autistic person, more than what they actually are, more than what they actually need. So if you are to say someone is high, is low functioning, essentially what you’re saying is you’re saying one of two things. One is, oh, we can’t really expect that much from them, so we’re going to almost be kind of patronizing and paternalizing to them and very paternalist toward them. Or we’re just not going to spend that much money and resources on them because they’re low functioning so we shouldn’t really expect much out of them so far. Fine, you know, like—it’s one of those two things, you’re either super patronized or you’re, you know, ignored. So like, that’s what people say, if you’re low, if you, when they think of you as quote unquote “low functioning” whereas if they see you as high functioning, the response is, Oh, well, you don’t need that much assistance, or you don’t need that much accommodation so therefore we’re not going to spend that much money on you, we’re not going to accommodate you that much because you’re high functioning, you know? You know, it’s funny just just the other day someone asked me, a parent emailed me or DMd me and said, like, you know, my kid might be autistic, they’re grown up but why should I, why should I get the diagnosis, they seem to be doing fine. And my response is they may look like they’re doing fine to you, but they might not be doing this fine as they might be, as they would be if they had the accommodations, if they had the services or if they had the diagnosis. And also the parents said like, you know, I don’t want their kid to use it as a crutch. And I was like, crutches help people walk and move. Like crutches are great. But because, once again, it goes to how ableist society is that we use crutch as an insult when crutches are actually, they’re, you know, if you didn’t have a crutch and you had a broken leg, life would suck, you know? You know, but yes, I think that the term, so I tend to prefer the terms higher support needs or lower support needs, because I think that that better articulates what autistic people need or what they want rather than how we see them. Because there are plenty of autistic people who may come off as high functioning, and I interview them in the book, you know, who have trouble finding employment or have trouble graduating. Conversely, there are some autistic people who might be considered low functioning who are able to be successful, if we give them the right resources, you know? So, and I think, so again, I don’t think it’s really accurate because it’s based on what neurotypical people see rather than who someone is.
Ana Marie Cox: I want to just dip in real quick about the idea of why get diagnosed, because I think for me with my mental illnesses, being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, being diagnosed as an alcoholic, was a way for me to understand what the fuck was happening.
Eric Garcia: Yeah, I know. It’s just like, I was like, it was funny, because like, I got diagnosed when I was younger, when I was like, you know, they finally got the diagnosis when I was like eight or nine, but like, it wasn’t until like I was a teenager and I started seeing documentaries, I think the first time I ever saw something about autism was—you remember that, I mean, I remember you worked for MTV—did you remember that show True Life?
Ana Marie Cox: Yes!
Eric Garcia: Yeah. Like, there was a True Life, I’m On the Autism Spectrum. And like even, and then on top of that, you know, I remember that the real thing was when they, was when I was watching CNN and they had a video of the late Mel Baggs and their video In My Language, and it was weird because once again, the reason why functioning labels don’t work is Mel Baggs, a lot of people would probably consider them low functioning. And then I saw them, and I was just like: Fucking finally, I’m seeing somebody like myself. And, you know, I think that what it does is it offers an incredible amount of clarity. And the thing that, that’s what I said, that was when I started to this, this parent is I said, look, it provides clarity and it provides you an understanding and it provides you relief because now you know you’re working with, and now you know how to deal with things, and now you know what you can and can’t do with you. Like a lot of people say, Oh, well, people don’t let, someone doesn’t let their disability hold me back. My disability holds me back from a lot of things. And that’s OK. But there are things that my disability also lets me do that it doesn’t let other people do, so that’s OK, too. But like, I think that it’s important to have that clarity and it’s, you know, it’s, I almost border on saying that it’s almost, I don’t want, it’s almost mean to not, if you can, to not give that information to someone. Because like, and then also like, you know, the flip side of that is that you know, a lot of people on the internet say that, oh, well, self-diagnosis isn’t legitimate or I see a lot of clinicians look down at, and my response is autistic people needing to self-diagnose isn’t an indictment of them, it’s an indictment on psychiatry, that, you know, not enough people believe them. So that’s yeah, like, I mean, but I think then once you have those, once you have the clarity of what you are working with, then allows you to navigate the world better.
Ana Marie Cox: People are, I think, very used to the idea of accommodations in the physical environment, and another really interesting thing about autism is that it’s accommodation, some of them are physical, some of them are things in the physical environment like a quieter room but one of your interviewees mentions socially accessible environments. Like, accommodations that might not be physical. And I know that’s kind of hard to talk about. We don’t really have the language for it, but could you explain a little about what that might look like?
Eric Garcia: Yeah. I mean, I think that one of the, I think the clearest example is with workplaces, just like giving straightforward instructions, and in clear and plain language rather than speaking in metaphors, it’s just one of the easiest things that you can do. The same thing when it comes to, you know, just kind of explaining abstract concepts in university and in colleges. You know, like I remember one time I was taking a cinema class for an elected and i was at community college, and then they kept on trying to explain these really esoteric concepts. And finally, after class, I went to one of my professors and I said, Look, I don’t understand what the hell this is. You need to be fucking clarifying about it, you know? And then later and then I said, I’m autistic. And then he says, Oh, he mentioned he had a loved one who was autistic, and then once that happened then he was able to explain things clearer to me and that was made things, that was allowed me to get an A in the class, you know, so I think it once again it’s, you know, it’s weird to, I think that because a lot of people aren’t used to or are not familiar with invisible disabilities, they’re not familiar with maybe invisible accommodations, so to speak.
Ana Marie Cox: That’s a really, I love that term. I like that idea. It’s invisible disabilities and invisible accommodations. It totally makes sense. Let’s talk about normalizing this invisible disability when it becomes a little more visible.
Eric Garcia: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: Because there are things that can come with autism that may seem unusual and I would really love it if people could not think that was weird. And what kinds of things would that be? Like what, what is, what needs to be normalized?
Eric Garcia: I think one thing that needs to be normalized is stimming, you know, and—
Ana Marie Cox: What is stimming?
Eric Garcia: Self stimulatory behavior. And I think a lot of people see it as distracting or they see it as like this thing that needs to be pathologized, when really a lot of times stimming, whether it be rocking back and forth or fidgeting with your hands or fidgeting with the fidget toy is really just a way to adjust to your environment and to process the sense, what’s going on sensory wise around you. I think that’s something that needs to be normalized. I think that while nobody likes having a meltdown, having an autism meltdown, I think one of the things that’s important is to recognize that it’s a response to stimuli from outward stimuli. And instead of patronizing or instead of punishing the autistic person for having a meltdown or using restraint or pressing someone down or using force, what needs to be done, what needs to be addressed is what’s causing that outward stimuli to overwhelm someone. I think that’s, you know, being, you know, I think that other people need to normalize sometimes speaking through nonverbal communication, you know, or turning subtext or reading between the lines into text, you know, and being as explicit as possible. I think those are some things that need to be normalized and accommodated toward. And I think that also the other thing that needs to be accepted is, and normalized, is not speaking with your mouth. You know, I think one things that I had to shed when I was writing this book is because I think as journalists were told that if you send someone, if you email someone questions before the interview that is seen as almost like, they’re going to have a time to prepare, they’re going to have, you know, give you a really processed response. That’s definitely true of politicians, that a lot of times, you know, or that kind of ruins the kind of the free flowing nature of a conversation that allows you to say things. But I think with autistic people, what I’ve learned if they can’t speak, that’s the only way you’re going to talk to them. You know, and I otherwise wouldn’t really talk to lots some autistic, I couldn’t have, you know, included some voices if I didn’t, you know, send emails, emailed questions. And for some that did speak, it allowed them to, gave them the time to prepare so that they could give me a fuller and more clarifying and more holistic answer than they otherwise would have. Because a lot of these people weren’t familiar with talking with the press or talking with journalists or talking with other types of people so that gave them the time to prepare. So I think those are the things that that need to be normalized as well, that there are many different valid types of communication, and none of them are less valid than the other.
Ana Marie Cox: I’d like to talk a little bit more about meltdowns, because something about it really resonated with me.
Eric Garcia: Yeah, yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: Because I I can get real squirrely if I’m in an environment with too much stimuli. And for me, it’s like a shutting down kind of thing. And I just have to get out of there. Just like, it’s like a fit. It’s almost like agoraphobia like, just leave. Right? And I think we’re all now familiar with the idea of I can’t even, right, but you talk about how for an autistic person, it really is an incapacitating thing.
Eric Garcia: Yeah, it’s all encompassing. It’s like you literally. You will forget the ability to speak sometimes. We just literally, your esophagus and your vocal cords just literally can’t, you know, put together words. Your brain just gets disconnected from your vocal cords and it just, you just start feeling clammy. And like I think a lot of people mistake it for like a temper tantrum when really it’s just like, No, this is this is a response of my body is just telling me I can’t do this anymore. It was interesting. There’s one woman I follow on Twitter, but one thing that she said to me that really hit me like a ton of bricks was, was when she said, a meltdown is a form of communication. I was like No, fucking way. I had never thought of it that way. But like, yeah, it is. It’s your body telling you this is too much and it’s your body telling other people, I need to go! You know? But it’s just as valid, and I think a lot of people patronize people who have meltdowns, but it’s a legitimate response. And it’s your, the way your brain is wired, that your brain’s fight or flight response. And it’s your brain’s response to say, this is a bad environment, we need to go. But for some reason, because it is presented in an outward way that we’re not familiar with, we kind of almost patronize or punish the person who is just having a natural response. That’s a natural response. And nobody likes having meltdowns. But more than that, is that like it’s important to recognize that this is going to happen and what are you going to do to make sure that these don’t happen? And also, do you have a response for when it does happen? You know, so like, you know, my friend A.J., who I profile in the book, he’s just like, he has a friend just turn on Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot when he’s feeling overwhelmed, you know? You know, so some people have, you know, have a plan for when this happens, you know.
Ana Marie Cox: And it’s another form of accommodation right?
Eric Garcia: Yeah, it is.
Ana Marie Cox: Because when you were writing about different levels of support, I don’t even call them levels, let’s say different kinds of support right? That some people can live independently, pretty much. But for instance, you profiled one woman who at the end of the day, she needs someone to kind of just like, do some stuff for her because it’s been so much, right? It’s just been so much for her, she goes—I guess it’s not a meltdown because it’s not, you know, outward—but it’s this incapacitating fatigue.
Eric Garcia: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It is. I think that it’s, you know, it is totally, and it’s not even, and like the other thing is that that’s not a bad thing, like to have a support home worker to help you do that. You know, I talked with, you know, Julia Bascom was the person, she is the head of a very big autism nonprofit here in Washington, D.C., the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and she needs that. And it’s not a butt or despite, it’s a because. These things allow you to do other things. I think a lot of people don’t realize that a lot of these accommodations aren’t things that limit you, they’re the things, they’re there because, they’re the raison d’etre, they’re the reason you can do these things, and that’s totally OK. And I think that we should accept them because without it, people wouldn’t be able to function. You know? Or wouldn’t be able to move to the world, you know?
Ana Marie Cox: All right. So I’m coming back, you write in the book about all-autistic gatherings, There’s an autistic retreat. What is that like?
Eric Garcia: That was such an interesting thing. I compare it to almost, so I’m Mexican-American, but I’ve never been to Mexico. Like a lot of Mexican-Americans, I’m pretty assimilated. And it was almost at one point, I was initially hesitant when I first went. Then midway through, I was like, OK, I think I get this. Then what I realized is that, Oh, these people are all kind of like me or, Oh, these are people who are, they’re different from me, but I notice some similarities. And I want to say by the middle of the second day, I realized that this was like going back to a home country that I’d never visited before. And I realized that because there were no other, there were no neurotypicals there, you know—I think there was like one parent there, and that was it—but like, it was all autistic people and at some point or another, I recognized that we were all kind of just being ourselves in a way that the world doesn’t allow us to. And it’s funny because I remember somebody else at another event I went to said that if you ever want to cure autism, just put a picture of autistic people in a room together. And it was fascinating because I realized that we were, you know, standing and rocking back and forth, and we were allowing each other to kind of info dump about our favorite stuff. And we were able to, you know, the idea that autistic people don’t have any emotions, like autistic people can be just as loving and affectionate and as loud and, you know, laugh as hard and, you know, be just as raunchy as neurotypical people and can be just as vulgar, more vulgar, you know? And we were allowed to be our whole, completely wonderful and beautifully fucked up themselves, you know, just like every other human being is, you know, I think everybody is a combination of fucked up and wonderful, you know, and often one reinforces the other, you know?
Ana Marie Cox: And it is really wonderful to be in the same place as people who are fucked up LIKE you are.
Eric Garcia: Yeah, exactly.
Ana Marie Cox: The same flavor of fucked-up-ness.
Eric Garcia: When I saw that, I don’t see it as like, we’re bad because we’re autistic but it’s just that like, you know, we’re, you know, we’ve been we’ve been beaten like Kyle Montgomery, who I interview in the book, he told me he’s like, You know, we don’t know what autism looks like, we know what autism with trauma looks like. So we see other people who’ve been fucked up by, in one way or another, by the world because the world just doesn’t understand us. And in the same way we can kind of, kind of be gentle with each other, and we can be kind with each other and we can realize that we’re not, we’re not screwed up or not bad because we’re autistic, we’ve been beaten up and we’ve been banged up a little bit because of—
Ana Marie Cox: Well, the challenges of the world.
Eric Garcia: By the cruelty of the world, yeah, but we’re OK and you’re OK and it allows you, and going away from that event, I remember feeling like I can be kinder to myself after this, you know? And that, you know and like, I want to be, you know, just between [unclear], I hope that like when people listen to that phrase that you include the whole of it because I don’t want people to think that autistic people are fucked up.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, I was going to say, I mean, fucked up with love. I mean, I, sometimes the way I describe, you know, myself is, you know, my brain just doesn’t work in the same way.
Eric Garcia: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
Ana Marie Cox: As other people’s do. And you could see that is fucked up. I mean, and OK, fine, like whatever. It’s just different.
Eric Garcia: Yeah, but like, you know, but like, I think, like was fascinating and like what came after that event is I was just happy. It was the like, don’t get me wrong, it was a lot because it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced and I was there to work, you know? But also, I met so many incredible people who I quote and I interview in the book from that event, and it was like, Wow, these are incredible people. And it’s funny because it’s like my friend John Marble, who I also profile in the book, who like he was one of my favorite people to profile in the book, just when you read the chapter about work. And he says, being autistic is a lot like being French, and he says that like, you know, a fashion designer in Paris is going to be very different from a Catholic nun in Bordeaux. But if you, if they sit down for, you know, baguettes in the Champagne region, they will have this kind of esprit de corps and this understanding of each other as Frenchman and Frenchwoman that that transcends where they live and their temperament and all that, that they they have this understanding of being French. And in the same way, one of the things I noticed when I was writing this book that I can, I can unequivocally say, is how amazing, is that like, there were these yes, autism, I want to be explicit, autism is as varied and as diverse as the people who have it. But at the same time, there are these through-lines, there are these common threads that tie us all together. And you realize, wow, for the longest time, you just thought you were defective or you were weird because of this but then you realize there’s like, you know, 10 million other people like you, and that’s weirdly comforting, you know?
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah. I love what you said about how being with a group of other autistic people and kind of embracing your specific kind of different wiring, right, helps you be kinder to yourself. And that makes me think of something I learned in your book that completely blew me away, which is that some studies suggest that autistic people are overrepresented in that LGTB q community.
Eric Garcia: Yeah!
Ana Marie Cox: And you have a kind of theory about that, right?
Eric Garcia: Yeah. Well, I don’t even feel it’s my theory, it’s what other autistic people have said. That like, you know, because like, I interview this wonderful person, Charlie Garcia Spiegel. He’s just fantastic. He’s autistic and he’s trans and he’s Latino, and like, we were talking at that retreat and like, we were talking and then like midway through, I realized, you know, he was telling me, he’s like, I think that because a lot of autistic people see gender norms and sexual norms as a social norm, and because those are a kind of a second language to us, we’re allowed to kind of question it. And it was like he was trying to, you know, think of the right word, and then I almost kind of, I was kind of finished the sentence for him, I was like, kind of see that it’s bullshit? He was like, Yeah! It’s kind of like bullshit. Yeah, because it’s like, because even, look, I am as cisgender and heterosexual as they come, but even I don’t feel comfortable with masculine gender norms, you know? I just, I just don’t feel comfortable with them. So I can totally see how if you are trans or queer or lesbian or gay or bisexual or whatever, anything else, that if you already don’t feel like you fit in and you feel like these social norms are already constricting for you, that you would realize that wait, we prescribe these kind of social and sexual gender norms for a lot of other things and why should we belong to them and why should we conform to them? And it’s why, you know, I often joke that whenever I go, I only saw a kind of half jokingly, but you know half serious and like whenever I go to these events, I’m usually one of the only straight, cisgender heterosexual guys, people there, you know, and it’s—like, that’s absolutely true, because so many times there are so many fantastic people. And I think what it shows me is that like, the same, the other thing that I say is I like, the same impulse that forces the world to want to make gay people more straight or straighter or trans people behave more cis, is the same impulse that wants to make autistic people behave more neuraltypically, rather than accepting them for who they are and accepting their, and for all their flaws, and accepting them for all the beauty that they have. Those are, you know, they’re the same impulses. They literally share the same DNA. The clinic that started applied behavioral analysis was started by a guy by the name of Ole Ivar Lovaas, Lovass is the person who started UCLA’s feminine boy project which was basically aversion therapy so like, it was, so literally the same DNA, you know?
Ana Marie Cox: In that he was trying to correct both types of things, like his approach to autism and his approach to queerness was, Oh, that’s something we got to fix.
Eric Garcia: Yeah, exactly. It was behaviorism? Yeah, it was behaviorism.
Ana Marie Cox: I think this leads us rather naturally into a discussion of autism and sex.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: We could also say relationships if you want, you know, sex is—but because there’s stereotypes around that, right?
Eric Garcia: Yeah. No, like, I mean, one of the things that got a lot of people think that autistic people are asexual or don’t—and not to say that there aren’t autistic asexuals, I know some autistic, asexual people and you know, God bless. But also, I know some autistic people who are ten times hornier then [laughter] There are some horny people, you know, it’s like, and it’s like, you know, I’ve dated, I’ve dated neurotypical women and I’ve dated autistic women and I’ve dated, you know, non-binary autistic fem people, you know, and you know, like, I got to say that it’s, the idea that they don’t want to have a romantic life or they don’t want to have a sex life—I’m sorry, from personal experience, from very numerous field research, I can say that that’s not the case.
Ana Marie Cox: You don’t have to go into detail.
Eric Garcia: No, I’m not goin to.
Ana Marie Cox: I’ll take your word for it.
Eric Garcia: I’m not going into detail. I’m just saying that, I’m just saying that it is, I’m just saying that like, it is always, and again, it goes to this kind of fear about disabled people being sexual, and it’s this fear of them reproducing. And it’s this fear of them having some kind of autonomy and some kind of capacity to control their lives and to control their bodies. And but like, you know, autistic people, you know, like I said, there are some who may not want to date or have sex. That’s cool. You know, fine, you know, do that. But like there are neurotypical people who are like that, you know? But, you know, in the same respect, you know, autistic people should be allowed to date and have sex and marry and have kids and things like that. You know, that’s totally something that is, it’s a normal part of the human experience. And why wouldn’t autistic people, some autistic people want to experience that, you know?
Ana Marie Cox: You say in the book that you wanted to, initially at least, and pretty much do in the book, avoid it becoming too much of a memoir?
Eric Garcia: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: I get it. But you say you don’t want it to be a self-narrating zoo exhibit?
Eric Garcia: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. I took that idea from Jim Sinclair and like, I don’t have anything against autism memoirs. Some of them are fantastic. I’m reading one right now. When her book hits Stateside, you should really have Sara Gibbs on here. Her book “Drama Queen” is just a delight. You should, she just, she’s just hilarious. We were DM’ing this morning. But, you know, I also worry that sometimes when you do these kind of memoirs that they almost individualize the autistic experience, or they say, Oh, look at this really inspiring autistic person, rather than, I think, what I saw myself as more of a set piece within a larger narrative. So what I wanted to do is I wanted to contextualize my experience and I think also just my general rule, I think this is the benefit of having been a newspaper reporter for better, for worse for the majority of my career, is that, is just being generally curious is that like any time I wanted to write about myself, I would just be like, But is that indicative of a larger trend? Is this kind of this, you know, is this is this a real thing, or is this a thing? You know? And then, you know, literally what I would do is I’d look it up or I’d do it, you know, I just try to corroborate that, and I’d be like, Oh, this might be a thing. And then I’d be like, Well, let me talk to some more people or let me see if I can get more people to talk about this. So I guess maybe it’s just my general impulse to be curious and my general impulse to just be skeptical of my own experience, that led me to want to do more about that. But I, you know, that was what really was the driver for that.
Ana Marie Cox: I am very curious about how your autism impacts your journalism and your and your career. Because I thought about this when you mentioned how autistic people can recognize gender norms and sex norms as the norms. And I wonder, that’s a way of calling bullshit, right?
Eric Garcia: Yeah, it is! It’s a way of calling bullshit.
Ana Marie Cox: So as you as a reporter, do you think your autism helps you call bullshit?
Eric Garcia: Absolutely, it does! If you know, if I feel like somebody is not answering the question, I’m going to get, literally I’m talking to you from the third floor of the Capitol, you know? I don’t know if you have ever been a reporter in the Capitol, but like, you know, I’m in that little press gallery that they have in the house, you know, like and you know, literally later today, I’m going to be talking with members of Congress about the government shutdown and the infrastructure bill. And like, sometimes I’ll get really peeved off if I feel like they’re giving me a know filtered, not answering answer, or like I used to get like, you know, when I started out in my career, you know, I remember back in late 2015 when I was covering Elizabeth Warren a lot, because I used to cover financial regulation, and then that turned into when she going to run for president? She should just never talked to reporters. And I remember getting really like, why doesn’t she want to talk to me? Then I almost get kind of offended. I’d be like, you’re senator, dammit. Like, you know, like you should be answering questions. You know? So like, I generally feel like sometimes politeness is for suckers, you know? You know, sometimes that’s led me to bad things like one time when I followed a senator in the men’s room. But . . .
Ana Marie Cox: So you’re not, I would just be very clear, like, what I think I’m hearing is like because you see norms as norms and like you can sort of choose to obey them or not yourself, like, you’re just like, I’m here for this story. I don’t care what other people think. I’m going to ask a question. I’m going to follow the guy into the men’s room because, I can put the story first, and I don’t have an opinion about what people think about me.
Eric Garcia: Yeah, I don’t really care. So, you know, my feeling is usually like, I used to get really, really defensive when people didn’t like a story that I did. Then like, I don’t know, I was just like, they’re going to be like a baby, you got to let them cry a little bit, and then you—I don’t know how good of a parent that I’m going to be—you know, let them walk it off. You know, they need you as much as you need them, fuck them. So, you know, like that that kind of attitude is still, I think that kind of is kind of feeling that like, you know, if you’re not going to tell the truth and I’m going to be a jerk to you.
Ana Marie Cox: I love 0it.
Eric Garcia: I think, I think that very much is an asset for me. You know, like, you know, any time you know, I write about it in the book, when I asked, like in the opening of the book, I ask somebody if they’re going to run for president when they’re in Iowa. And like, they gave me kind of a non-answer answer and I was just like, like later on I walked away and I was like, that’s kind of a bullshit answer, you know? Like, I still, I generally don’t like it when people give kind of the cookie-cutter answer for something and they think it’s the safe thing rather than telling the truth.
Ana Marie Cox: So you intentionally steered away from too much memoir.
Eric Garcia: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: But, I know that writing this book changed you.
Eric Garcia: Yeah, yeah it did.
Ana Marie Cox: Please talk about that.
Eric Garcia: I think again, to the point about like, you know, I think when I started, I think when I, when you are growing up as a teenager, you don’t, you have this kind of idea that you don’t, you don’t know, even if you have a diagnosis, you don’t care about the diagnosis label, you care about the diagnosis label that the kids in the schoolyard are giving you, you know? And oftentimes it’s a lot more cunning than anything a doctor can tell you, you know? And in that kind of sets you, that’s kind of sets you to think that, OK, well, I’m not going to have a really stable, you know, life, you know? I’m going to, you know, I’ve going to always have difficulty with making friends or I’m always going to have difficulty or like, it’s going to be something that you know, it’s, you know, if I want to get married, I’m still on the fence about getting married and having kids, but like, that’s going to be really hard. Sorry, mom. You know, you know, like, you have these kind of ideas that the, you know, if you’re going to be autistic and you’re going to be OK with being autistic, you’re going to have to be OK with losing some stuff, or like some things, just aren’t going to be there for you. Like, having a full stable and fulfilling career or having a full and stable and enjoyable romantic life, or having full friends, or even feeling connected. And I think also, so I think that was the thing, is that like I met plenty of autistic people who have wonderful fulfilling lives with good jobs with marriages, or even the ones who had difficulty doing, you know, who had difficulty graduating or living, they somehow find a way to make, to live good lives, and they’re somehow still good people are still wonderful to be around, and they’re still amazing. And I think the other thing that, so I hink that happened, I think it allowed me to be kinder to myself. And I think the other thing is that when I first started writing about autism, I used to worry that I was the wrong kind of autistic. I worried that like, because I didn’t know enough about the history, I didn’t know about this or I didn’t know about that. It’s kind of a lot of like my anxieties being Mexican-American. Like, I don’t speak fluent Spanish. I’ve never been to Mexico as I’ve said. You know, I don’t know a lot about, you know, that I’ve just never felt that kind of kinship. I was born in the Midwest, you know, I grew up in California and Texas but like, you know, like, I never had that understanding. But then I think what I realized is that there’s no, just like, there’s no right way to be Latino, there’s no right or wrong way to be autistic. So I think that’s one thing that’s kind of changed.
Ana Marie Cox: You end the book or sort of begin to wrap up with a quote from Frederick Douglass.
Eric Garcia: Yeah. I should say, Adam Sura gave me that quote.
Ana Marie Cox: It’s a great quote, I will read it and then please talk about the way that you relate it. “What I ask for the Negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice.” And he concluded his remarks by saying, “What shall we do with the Negro? Do nothing with us?”
Eric Garcia: Yeah. Frederick Douglass is one of my heroes.
Ana Marie Cox: Because that might sound weird to people, right? Like, do nothing with us, but what does it mean for you?
Eric Garcia: What it means is that I think a lot of times autistic people are treated as a problem that needs to be fixed. Their very existence is, you know, to borrow from another great American intellectual, W.E.B. Dubois in his book The Souls of Black Folk, when people encounter you there’s almost this implicit question of what is it like to be a problem, in America? You know? And the same way I feel like when you’re being autistic, there’s all this push to find solutions or to fix this, and not enough on what do, what do autistic people want and need, and how do we help you do that? What do we do? Because Douglass wasn’t saying, like, don’t do anything like, don’t do it, you know, he talked about wanting, you know, you know, work and he wanted, you know, you know, ways to empower freedmen and freed women. But like, he didn’t want them treated like a social issue to be championed. He wanted them to be treated like people. And I think that what my biggest response is that give us, give autistic people what they need so that they can determine their own destiny, increase their, because to me what freedom is, and you know, I think maybe it might be the latent influence of growing up with a Republican dad is, you know, freedom is the ability to choose your destiny and choose the option to create your own choices. So what I want is for, I want autistic people to have the ability to choose whatever they want. And I want, and I don’t want them to be prescribed something. I don’t want their destiny to be pre-written them. I want them to be able to have all the opportunities that neurotypicals do. My sister and I, my sister’s neurotypical, and I want, what I basically say I want my sister to have the same stuff I have, the same opportunities that I have and vice versa. My mom did that. And even in, you know, conversely, my sister and I, we couldn’t be more different in a lot of ways, but we were given the same options, the same choices to do whatever we wanted and we were able to do it. So that’s basically what I said.
Eric Garcia: Many thanks to Eric Garcia, who is the Washington correspondent for the Independent and the author of We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation. A great mind-opening read about neuro-atypical minds. This show is a product of Crooked Media. Andy Gardner-Bernstein is our producer. Patrick Antonetti is our editor. Take care of yourselves.