Jessica Benham is a state legislator in Pennsylvania, representing a district that includes parts of Pittsburgh and its environs. A cofounder of the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, she’s one of the only openly autistic state legislators anywhere in the United States.
As a Democrat and the first out LGBTQ woman in the state house, Benham’s politics aren’t exactly those of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Republican who signed the sunshine state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.
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But she recently found herself in the somewhat surprising position of pushing back against an emerging line of attack against DeSantis, something that’s been trotted out by supporters of Donald Trump: The attempt to draw attention to DeSantis’ awkward public presence by claiming that the GOP presidential hopeful is “a little bit on the spectrum,” as Trump hatchet man Steve Bannon first put it last week.
It’s not that Benham thinks such a diagnosis would be disqualifying. Rather, she’s troubled by the act of armchair diagnosis as a way of knocking someone. The implication is that the status of being on the spectrum is problematic or shameful or bad — and, at any rate, something intentionally kept secret.
“It’s frankly none of our business until he tells us one way or the other,” she tells me. “But if you want to delegitimize someone as a politician, certainly leaning into those stereotypes that people have about autistic folks is one way to do it. And that’s what’s happening here.”
No kidding. In short order, Bannon’s comment, which used the pseudo-diagnosis to explain DeSantis’ disastrous Twitter campaign rollout alongside Elon Musk, was echoed across the MAGA ecosystem. “Ron DeSantis is 100% on the spectrum,” tweeted the pro-Trump activist Laura Loomer. “Can we finally talk about this?” Grace Chong, the CFO of Bannon’s War Room podcast, called him “DeSpectrum” in one tweet, and in another one contrasted him unfavorably with the former president: “Trump does it BIGGER, BETTER, and with HEART. Unlike that guy on the spectrum.”
Within the community of autistic advocates and people who study autism, the development has led to a sort of dread about what lies ahead, particularly as Trump versus DeSantis becomes the major story in primary politics. Though it thus far only involves fringe characters — and, in fact, generated a certain amount of negative feedback even from those characters’ Trump-friendly followers — history suggests this kind of assertion tends to move from the margins to the mainstream.
“My reaction is that, oh, here we go again, perpetuating false myths and negativity about the concept of autism and being on the spectrum,” says Barry Prizant, a University of Rhode Island professor and author of Uniquely Human, a bestselling book about autism. “It’s obviously trying to adhere a black mark to DeSantis. … I think there has to be major pushback against that, because it’s perpetuating the stigma.”
“God give me strength,” says Eric Garcia, Washington correspondent for the Independent and author of the 2021 book We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation. “It’s really fucking disgusting what Steve Bannon is doing.” Garcia says his group chat with fellow autistic writers lit up on the Bannon news. The refrain: “Are we really going to have to spend 18 months on this?”
In a different context — such as if a political figure were to disclose an autism diagnosis — an open discussion of what we now know to be a very common neurological difference could provide a teaching moment for society, one that could highlight the challenges faced by many people on the spectrum as well as some of the workplace strengths many in that community feel they can bring, including deep focus and an ability to avoid groupthink.
It could also, in theory, be a moment when raw numbers demonstrate that it’s a bad idea to make fun of autistic people: The latest CDC estimate is that one in 36 American children is on the spectrum, a vast population of folks with families and friends and loved ones, and one that’s geographically spread throughout the country, not just in blue states or red.
But that’s not what’s happening here.
“The speculation so far is being done completely in bad faith,” says Devon Price, an autism-focused social psychologist and author of Unmasking Autism, his own well-received book on “the power of embracing our hidden neurodiversity.” In the face of that sort of allegation, something like a categorical denial from the targeted candidate would come off as a further statement that a spectrum diagnosis is something bad (even if the denial happens to be entirely true).
DeSantis’ camp did not respond to a request for comment.
Also concerning to advocates: The GOP in the Trump era has rewarded pols who shake off other social taboos against making fun of disabled people. Trump supporters are excited by the “idea that, like, The Man doesn’t want you to make fun of disabled people and so therefore you should,” says Zoe Gross of the Autism Self Advocacy Network. “To just have a disability [is to be] the butt of a joke or the target of insults. We need to be moving away from that, not towards that.”
Bannon also did not respond to a request for comment.
Still, if ableism is eternal, the specifics of tossing around autism-spectrum diagnoses says something about our moment. Time was when the number of people who might witness, say, an uncomfortable candidate foray into a New Hampshire diner would be limited to the diner’s patrons and the few hangers-on in the press pool. Folks at home would maybe see the 10-second clip spliced into an evening news story. Nowadays, we can stream the whole thing in real-time. After a while it creates a kind of intimacy, allowing all sorts of folks watching from their laptops to venture forth with diagnoses for conditions ranging from the dermatological to the gerontological to the neurological — and then share them with the world.
The goofy speculation is no longer limited to the hacks in the media van.
Trump’s presidency famously saw an explosion of such distant diagnoses as detractors labeled the 45th president a sociopath or as suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder, to the displeasure of psychiatric professional associations. The difference, though, is that most people would agree those labels are bad and even disqualifying. There is no organized demographic of sociopaths or narcissists trying to push back against discrimination and stereotypes the way there now is in the autism community.
“I don’t think there’s anything about being autistic that means that you can’t represent well a constituency, understand a logical argument or advance a political cause,” says Gross, who was a Hill staffer before joining the autistic-led Washington advocacy group. “This feels obvious to say, but to call someone autistic as an insult is insulting, mostly not to that person you’re trying to insult but to autistic people in general.”
With the analysis of DeSantis, it’s also a little more complicated.
Yes, it’s easy to condemn a podcast provocateur for throwing around a diagnostic term inappropriately. But in Washington smart-set media-and-politics circles, making fun of DeSantis’ social awkwardness is a widely shared pastime, with people gleefully circulating videos of the candidate robotically working a room or laughing in strange ways. As with published quotes likening him to a “computer” and recounting baffling emotional miscues, the underlying insinuation — this guy can’t quite relate — lines up with stereotypes about people on the spectrum.
So what’s the line between perpetuating stereotypes on the one hand and, on the other, merely goofing on the foibles of a clearly smart and successful politician who, like Mitt Romney or Al Gore before him, happens not to have the schmoozing skills of a Bill Clinton (or possibly not even of the average local school board member)?
To most people in the autism advocacy world, the ethical difference lies in pathologizing — connecting the mocked behavior to a specific condition that may or may not apply. But maybe it’s also a moment to think about what we look for in elected officials. “There’s a way in which it would be better for all people if the barrier to entry was a little less high in terms of how socially normative you have to be,” Gross tells me. “Or if we focused more on substantive issues, and less on how socially normative a politician is. But I also don’t think that it’s disability-related every time people are saying, ‘Oh, that politician acts weird.’”
It turns out that pressing the flesh in a diner is also not much of an indicator of anything.
“I’m pretty good at working a room,” says Benham, the Pennsylvania legislator. “Because working a room follows a set of rules and social norms that you can learn. But there are plenty of my colleagues who are not good at that and who are not autistic. … Maybe they’re just introverted.”
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