Autism for President

Autism doesn’t disqualify a person as a leader, but could even be a vote in their favor.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Phoebe Buckwalter

There are two main ways to get ahead of someone: focus on improving yourself or weakening your opponent. While focusing on oneself is more ethical and, at times, more effective, it can’t be denied that it is often easier to tear down the opposition, whether it means attacking their ideas or releasing information, true or false, that can diminish their support. Because of this, politicians and their allies often resort to attacking their opponents, sometimes in unfair ways, like with outright insults or by spreading misinformation about a candidate. 

A recent example of this was aimed at Florida’s governor and 2024 presidential candidate Ron DeSantis. A few months ago, DeSantis planned to announce his candidacy with a video on X (formerly Twitter) with Elon Musk. The event was rife with glitches and became a topic that former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon discussed obsessively on his War Room podcast. Bannon mentioned Musk’s confirmed autism diagnosis and added that DeSantis is “a little on the spectrum.” This comment alone is problematic in many ways. For one, it is misinformation. Ron DeSantis has never confirmed being autistic, meaning that people who say otherwise are making or believing an armchair diagnosis. Whether or not DeSantis has autism is something that he should share on his own accord and shouldn’t be assumed. Not only did Bannon spread misinformation, but he also ascribed the failure of the event to both the confirmed and fabricated autism diagnoses of Musk and DeSantis, which further spews hatred toward the autistic community.

Bannon’s comment sparked others to continue supporting the unsubstantiated diagnosis. Laura Loomer, a far-right activist, tweeted “Ron DeSantis is 100 [percent] on the spectrum.” Grace Chong, the Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer of War Room, also tweeted, “Trump does it BIGGER, BETTER, and with HEART. Unlike that guy on the spectrum. Trump is so right on this. DeSantis is doing some bizarre things lately and I think we all truly see a loser in him. Trump 2024.” She also referred to DeSantis as “DeSpectrum.” Not only are Loomer’s and Chong’s quotes prime examples of using lies to support their preferred candidate, but they are also derogatory toward people with autism. 

Chong referring to DeSantis as DeSpectrum is offensive regardless of whether or not DeSantis is on the spectrum. The nickname ridicules autism and the people who have it. It belittles a condition that affects millions of people. Autism is nothing to be ashamed of and shouldn’t be an insult or source of comedic relief. Chong also refers to DeSantis as “that guy on the spectrum” as if it is the reason why he is doing “some bizarre things.” No one should be reduced to just a “guy on the spectrum” because they do “bizarre things.” While autism is sometimes a reason for “out of the norm” behavior, it is in no way the only explanation. And while DeSantis does have many unusual and, in many cases, harmful ideas, such as his “Don’t Say Gay” bill, his “bizarre” behavior is in no way representative of an autistic person. 

It is the intent of these comments, however, that is the biggest problem. They promote the illegitimacy of DeSantis as a candidate for presidency based on his fictional autism. They suggest that being autistic is a reason a candidate shouldn’t be elected and isn’t qualified to hold positions of power. 

This has proved to be completely untrue in examples throughout history. Some of the brightest minds, artists, athletes, and of course leaders, have been thought to have autism. Take Michelangelo, one of the most famous artists in history. His fixations allowed him to see things other people didn’t. Emily Dickinson, a famous American poet from the 1800s, is also believed to have had autism. There are the more obvious signs, such as Dickinson’s solitary life and reserved nature, but also her exploration of unconventional writing techniques; these styles, which may have been inspired by her different ways of thinking, are still incorporated into modern poetry. Albert Einstein was another pioneer who showed signs of autism throughout his life, such as struggling in social situations, fixating on special interests, and having difficulties with communicating. Nonetheless, he advanced the world in many ways with his theory of relativity.

While these prominent figures existed before autism was a diagnosis, many experts believe that based on the information acquired on them, they would qualify for a diagnosis. There is, of course, no way to ascertain the validity of these diagnoses as no expert ever interacted with them. 

So, if it is clear that people with autism hold valuable positions in communities and can successfully lead, being autistic should not disqualify a candidate from a position in government. On the contrary, politicians with autism, who may function and think a little differently, can actually provide valuable, underrepresented perspectives. While anyone can do research on a topic, and some people can even become experts, there is only a certain extent to which you can learn about a topic without knowing what it is like to live it. It is because of this that representation is important. There are currently only three active state legislators who have publicly announced their autism. This means that just 0.04 percent of state legislators have autism.

When the brain works differently, the world is often perceived differently. This means that a neurodiverse brain may have an increased ability to come up with different ideas, problems, and solutions. If all different types of people who thought and interacted in all different sorts of ways had an equal opportunity to help the world through government, many issues may be resolved. 

It isn’t as simple as just increasing the amount of people with autism in government, however. Not everybody with autism announces it publicly, which is, of course, their prerogative. There is a stigma around autism, making it harder for people to share their diagnoses. Sharing reduces the stigma and, therefore, makes it a little easier for the next person to disclose their diagnosis.

While a government official “in the closet” about their autism may be more effective at addressing certain issues, such as accessibility, than a neurotypical person, they may still be less effective than a government official “out of the closet” about their diagnosis. This is because being public about your diagnosis allows you to foster an emotional connection with your constituents and better address the issues they face. While politicians shouldn’t solely be elected for diversity, their underrepresented perspectives shouldn’t be seen as a weakness but rather a strength.

Having “out of the closet” autistic government officials is also important for children. Just like how people felt seen and inspired when there was finally a Black president and a female vice president, neurodiverse children need to have that same representation. It not only proves to them that they can do it, too, but also lets them know that it's okay to be different, to share your differences, and to succeed in doing so.