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Andrew Yang Puts Autism In The Spotlight, But Policy Questions Linger

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has a son on the autism spectrum and has been talking openly about the disability.
Chris Carlson
Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has a son on the autism spectrum and has been talking openly about the disability.

During the final presidential debate of 2019, one of the moderators posed a question about a topic that rarely gets attention on the debate stage: What steps would candidates take to help disabled people get more integrated into the workforce and their local communities?

For Andrew Yang, the question was both political and personal. His oldest son, Christopher, is on the autism spectrum.

"I have a son with special needs. And to me, special needs is the new normal in this country," Yang said on the debate stage, before asking audience members to raise their hands if they knew someone autistic or with special needs.

That's a question that Yang has been asking audiences everywhere as he campaigns across the country seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. But despite his openness about the disability, some advocates say his policy proposals meant to help people on the autism spectrum and with disabilities lack heft and specificity.

At a recent town hall in Salem, N.H., Yang described when Christopher received his autism diagnosis.

"We were first-time parents and Christopher had struggles. But as a first-time parent you don't know if that's just the norm," he said. "You think, maybe this is normal, maybe 2-year-olds act like this and 3-year-olds act like this." Getting the diagnosis, he said, was a relief for him and his wife. "We were like, OK, this is something we now understand and we can bring resources to bear."

But Yang said he recognizes that not everyone has those resources. Autism can be a costly and complex diagnosis that can vary widely. Yang told NPR why he's decided to make his son's story part of his campaign. He said there wasn't really a choice.

"I would have no idea how not to talk about it, in the sense that it's part of our family and part of our lives," he said. "The last thing that would ever occur to me would be to somehow obscure the reality of Christopher and his autism from our story."

He described Christopher as "very high-functioning" and "intellectually very gifted in some respects," while "socially and emotionally very challenged in some respects."

Yang and his wife, Evelyn, have been particularly candid about the challenges they face as caregivers. Evelyn stays at home with their children, though she has recently been active on the campaign trail. She recently voiced an ad that focuses on caregivers.

Yang has said that since Christopher received his autism diagnosis at age 3, Evelyn has become the "CEO of Team Christopher." He credits her with taking on the lion's share of the work while he's on the road. But he's candid that it's "very, very hard on the family."

"I will say one virtue of Christopher's autism is that he has absolutely no idea what Daddy is doing. And that's true for his younger brother as well, who is 4. So there is some benefit," Yang said in response to a question about how they balance parenting with the demands of a presidential campaign. "I just told them that Daddy has a big deadline and is on the road an awful lot. They don't understand what I'm doing."

"Anytime someone talks to me about running and the work I'm doing, I say really thank my wife Evelyn, because she's been working 10 times harder, keeping Christopher and the family strong and whole," he said, adding that his campaign would not be possible "without her doing the real, hard work."

In December, the Yang campaign held an event focused on families and autism in Iowa City, Iowa. The stop was part of Yang's recent bus tour across the state. More than 100 people filled a cafe to speak with the Yangs.

Many attendees said they didn't remember a presidential candidate ever talking about autism in the same way — or holding an event specifically focused on autism.

"Autism is such a common condition. You know, so many of us know somebody who's on the autism spectrum. But yet we don't have leaders who talk about autism in a positive light. You know, we currently have a leader who thinks it's appropriate some openly mock people who have developmental differences," said Jessie Witherell, a co-founder of the Iowa City Autism Community and the mother of an 8-year-old autistic son. Her group helped put together the December event.

She was alluding to President Trump, who recently has mocked Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist who has Asperger's syndrome.

"And so you're getting to meet somebody who actually wants to address autism and reduce stigma and talk about the things that actually affect our lives — was very, very important," she added.

The event was the first one of its kind Dina Bishara, another co-founder of the Iowa City Autism Community said.

"One thing that I think we were both very happy with is that I think the first three questions from the audience were from autistic adults," said Bishara, who moderated the conversation with Yang. "So often the conversation is dominated by parents and professionals. I was really happy that not only did autistic adults stick out this event, which was very not autism-friendly, but they had a chance to directly connect with the candidate himself, too."

At the event in Salem, Yang rolled out a new plan to fund research and support children with disabilities and their families.

Ari Ne'eman, a senior research associate at Harvard Law School's Project on Disability and a co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, said he welcomed some parts of Yang's plan, including his commitment to ending seclusion as a punishment in schools. He also praised Yang's call for increased funding for the federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which gives every child the right to services and accommodations that will allow them to learn.

But he also had some concerns, including the fact that Yang's proposals focus only on children, rather than also including policy directed toward disabled adults.

"That's a sore spot in the disability community. Often you will see the public very quick to talk about cute, disabled children, but when those children grow up, being very reluctant to provide supports and services in order to be able to have a life with dignity and independence," he said.

In the NPR interview, Yang called it "mission critical that we help families get a diagnosis for a child as early as possible," but added that "it should be easier for any American to identify that they may be neurologically atypical."

"I'd love to be able to help people at different stages identify neurological atypicalities because it's immensely helpful. If you don't know about something about yourself, then it's very hard to adapt and adjust," he said. "But I will say that I'm particularly passionate about helping kids and parents understand it because the early ages and stages are so crucial to kids' development where the right intervention can actually change the course of that person's life, and be the difference between them leading a happy, productive, fully integrated life and needing assistance for their entire life."

Disability justice advocate and organizer Lydia X. Z. Brown said that Yang "falls into a very familiar pattern of non-autistic parents of autistic children using their children to support their own credibility as speakers about autism without actually consulting autistic people themselves."

They described Yang's proposal as "limited in scope" and "lacking" compared with the disability policy platforms released by other candidates.

"A good policy platform at the end of the day has to be one that is devised in consultation and collaboration with directly impacted people and communities and one in which if that person is to be elected to office or to hold any position of influence will be implemented, led and led by those who belong to directly impacted communities," they said. "Yang's platform shows that he has not done even a fraction of that work."

Ne'eman shared that concern. He said that Yang's plan was a positive step forward but that "he's still speaking in generalities rather than making concrete policy commitments."

One big question that has been raised by advocates is how Yang's signature Freedom Dividend, which would give every American $1,000 a month, would work with the existing web of disability programs.

That's one issue that Tammy Nyden, who attended the Iowa City autism event, raised. She's the mother of a severely disabled son and a co-founder of Mothers on the Front Line.

She said she hasn't found her "perfect candidate" but says she was pleased to hear Yang "speak openly and proudly about his child and put it in a positive light and understand the wonderful humanity and gifts of his son instead of sometimes the way the issue is discussed."

"I really appreciate Andrew Yang's platform, this idea of having a minimum income, particularly for people with disabilities," Nyden said. "One concern I have, though, is when I look at the platform, that's to replace SSDI (Social Security Disability Income) and other things. And while $1,000 is better than the I think $721 that a person with disabilities can get per month, you can't live on either of those."

In the NPR interview, Yang didn't get into specifics on which existing disability programs would stack with the Freedom Dividend. And it's not something addressed in the plan his campaign released this week.

But, in response to Nyden's concern, he said that "the last thing I would ever do is take anything away from Americans."

"The Freedom Dividend is universal and opt-in. There are some instances where it might substitute for existing benefits. In many other instances, like Social Security, it stacks on top," he said. "So it would depend upon the source of the nature of the program."

He added that the $1,000 a month payment he wants to give every American is "meant to be a foundation or floor for all Americans, but no one stops building at the floor."

"If there are individuals or families that need more support and resources, that's what we should be providing," Yang said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.