Author Eric Garcia Is Changing The Conversation Around Autism With His New Book : Life Kit Whether you know it or not, you know somebody who is autistic. So if you think autism doesn't affect you, you're wrong, says Eric Garcia.

In this episode, Garcia, author of We're Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation, talks about myths surrounding autism, how to talk about it and how to help your autistic loved one live their most fulfilling life.

In 'We're Not Broken,' Author Eric Garcia Takes On Myths About Autism

In 'We're Not Broken,' Author Eric Garcia Takes On Myths About Autism

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Left: Mariner Books; Right: Photograph by Kristin Herbruck
Journalist Eric Garcia, a senior Washington correspondent for The Independent, is the author of the book We're not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation.
Left: Mariner Books; Right: Photograph by Kristin Herbruck

Whether you know it or not, you know somebody who is autistic.

So if you think autism doesn't affect you, you're wrong, says Eric Garcia, a senior Washington correspondent for The Independent. Garcia is the author of the book We're Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation. The book was written partly out of frustration — frustration over the media's coverage of autism, frustration over the myth surrounding autism, and the policies that have been shaped by society's misconceptions.

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Garcia's autistic and knows the consequence of such policies first hand. Policies that he says have wrongfully focused on finding a cure for autism. Something he says Autistic people don't want and never asked for. His book asks: instead of trying to prioritize trying to 'fix' autistic people, what can we do to make their lives better?

We're Not Broken is a lyrical mix of myth-busting, memoir, history, field interviews, and straight-up advice on how to better understand the autism spectrum, how to talk about it, and why it impacts every one of us.

Garcia spoke with Life Kit about the wide range of autistic experiences and how to help your autistic loved one live their most fulfilling life (spoiler alert: just ask).

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

Laine Kaplan-Levenson: In the beginning of your book, you mention that the writing began in part out of frustration — what frustrated you, and what were you hoping to do about it in this book?

Eric Garcia: There's just a lot of discussion about curing autistic people or curing autism or combating autism or fixing autistic people. And almost never was there any discussion about, well, what is it that autistic people need right now? Even if you believe that there should be a cure, which I really articulate that I don't think that there should be a cure, that's something that's a long way down the road, and that doesn't really serve autistic people now. I also was frustrated that I felt like almost every discussion about autism focused mostly on white male adolescent boys. It excluded plenty of autistic people who don't fit that categorization.

How does your personal story and experience contradict those common beliefs?

Well, for one, I'm an adult. I think that a lot of the focus has been on children or this idea that autistic people are only children. The other [thing] is that I don't work in technology or science ... any of the STEM fields. I'm a reporter. There's this idea that autistic people can't communicate, or their communication is considered invalid. Or that because we have difficulty with social cues that we couldn't possibly be reporters or work in media. Then there's also the fact that I'm Latino. There is still a large diagnosis gap for Latinos, and they're often diagnosed much later [in life.] So I think in many ways I don't fit the stereotypical image of what people think of when they think of autism.

You've worked at major organizations like The Washington Post and really have lived a lot of your dreams. But in the book, you write, "This is the point in the story where people expect a happy ending, the part where an autistic person goes from being a social outcast to channeling their special abilities into gainful employment." In another interview, you talk about how these "inspirational stories" just totally enrage you and how problematic they are. So, why do those narratives cause so many problems?

I think one of my problems with those kinds of stories and why they enrage me is because they put all the onus on the autistic person themselves. So it's on the autistic person to find their niche interest that can be monetized. And if you don't have an interest that can be monetized, then you're almost kind of mythologized. They're inspiring because they don't require anything to change within the system. I would rather turn the extraordinary ordinary. It's the same reason why I don't like stories about, "oh, look at this inspiring autistic person who graduated from college." Yes, it's good that they graduate from college. Why do we find that inspiring? Because we start from the baseline assumption that autistic people can't graduate from college rather than thinking, what can we do to make college more accessible? And the same way, what can we do to make employers and workplaces more accessible for autistic people?

Another major theme in the book is around language and labels. We've had these labels that society has used for a long time now that call certain types of autistic people "low functioning" and other types of autistic people "high functioning." And you see this language as harmful.

Yeah, I'm not a fan of the terms "high functioning" and "low functioning." If we create this almost tiered system of autism, then we can say either, "Well, this person is low functioning, so we don't need to spend that much money on them," or "this person is low functioning, so we don't need to expect much of them." So it's either or. That's why I'm a fan of using the term "high support needs", because that tends to describe what they need rather than how we see them function in society. On the flip side, calling someone "high functioning," like myself, or someone who can work or someone who can speak... erases the legitimate difficulties they might have. It might erase the fact they might need accommodations in school. It might erase the accommodations they might need at work. It flattens, and it erases their experiences.

What language makes autistic people or an autistic person feel more included or seen? For people who don't know how to refer to autistic people, should they say "someone with autism" or "an autistic person" or "someone on the spectrum," — how do you approach that?

Most autistic people prefer identity-first language, which is to say autistic because we recognize that autism is inextricable from our identity. It's not something you can remove from us. To remove it from us would be to fundamentally change who we are. So I tend to prefer that. But more than anything, I usually just ask.

What would your advice be for how neurotypical people can help autistic people improve their lives, especially neurotypical people who live with autistic people?

Ask them. A lot of people will probably say, "well, it's easy for you to say because you can speak, my kid isn't able to speak." When your kid has a meltdown, rather than trying to mitigate the symptoms, you try to figure out what's causing meltdowns or what's causing sensory overwhelming or sensory processing. You'll learn what your kid needs or what your loved one needs. Even if they can't speak, even if they can't use a communication type pad, they'll still find a way to communicate to you. And that is just as important, and that is just as valid. For those who can't speak, you should still ask them. Whether they can speak or whether they can't speak, you should take their needs seriously. You shouldn't trivialize them.


The audio portion of this episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider with engineering support from Marcia Caldwell.

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