EP 76: Changing the Conversation on Autism with Eric Garcia

Uncategorized Apr 21, 2023


What does it mean to you to be broken? To be normal? And who gets to decide what it means to be broken or whole?

We live in a culture obsessed with fixing anything deemed broken - from stuff to people.

We need to create spaces where we do not see difference as broken.

And we do this by not settling for our current ways of navigating our discomfort with difference  while pushing back on the burdened definition of what is normal and what is broken.

But inclusion is inconvenient. It is also uncomfortable. And awkward.

Facing your discomfort with difference and neurodivergence means facing your ableism. 

Which is why I was so excited and honored to talk with today’s guest. His book is a beautiful testament to those with neurodivergence and other intersectional identities that have been marginalized. It is written beautifully and is now my number one recommend when people ask for a book to read about autism.

Eric Garcia is the senior Washington correspondent for the Independent and the author of the book We're Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation. He is also a columnist for MSNBC. He previously worked as an assistant editor at the Washington Post’s Outlook section and an associate editor at The Hill, as well as a correspondent for National Journal, MarketWatch, and Roll Call. He has also written for the Daily Beast, the New Republic, and Salon.com. Garcia is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.



Listen to the full episode to hear:

  • How Eric connected the dots between bad or debunked ideas about autism and bad public policy around autism and neurodivergence
  • Why Eric maintained a journalist’s approach to his book, rather than writing a personal memoir
  • How a chance conversation led to Eric’s wrestling with his fear of being “outed” and internalized ableism
  • How Eric navigated consent and inspiration or pity “porn” when sharing other autistic people’s stories
  • How Eric has recontextualized the asterisks on his successes and taken ownership of his accomplishments


Learn more about Eric Garcia:

Learn more about Rebecca:


Scroll Down for The Full Episode Transcript:

Eric Garcia: Accommodations don't lower the bar, they just allow more people to participate and allow people to be judged on their merits and allow them to rise and fall on their merits rather than a lack of accommodations. Once you make a place accessible, then somebody can succeed or fail based on their own skills.

[Inspirational Music]

Rebecca Ching: What does it mean to you to be broken, and what does it mean to you to be whole or “normal”? I’ve been thinking about these questions, and it’s led to further questions like what do you focus on that needs to be fixed in yourself or others and what even informs your views on the difference between broken and whole? Now frankly, I wonder who gets to decide what is broken too.

I mean, sure, we live in a culture obsessed with fixing anything deemed broken, from stuff to people. We buy replacements when something breaks because often we don't know how to fix the thing (raising my hand), and we sure love shiny, new, perfect, efficient. In the process, we trash things that end up polluting the earth and disregard and discard the value of people when they don't fit a certain definition of enough or functioning or whole. We need to create spaces where we don't see difference as broken, and we do this by not settling for our current ways of navigating our discomfort with difference while also pushing back on the burdened definition of what is normal and what is broken.

I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with humans who navigate life’s challenges and lead in their own ways. Our goal is to learn how they address the burdens they carry, how they learn from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.


All right, y’all, today’s conversation hits close to home for me, but I also hope it moves you too as you think about the spaces and the people in them you lead and love. Now, my journey with autism in my family has forced me to look at my own ableism as I work hard to advocate for my children and those I work with who are neurodivergent.

Now, right after my oldest was diagnosed on the autism spectrum (gosh, it was about 12 years ago) we were out to dinner with some friends when we shared my daughter’s diagnosis, and one of them asked, “Will you be able to fix it?” Oof, and it took my breath away. It hurt. It frustrated me because I knew she’s not broken and she didn't need to be fixed. I also knew the world did not see her that way, and I received this message about her again and again and again in various places that we live and engage in our community.

Not too long after that conversation, I began to realize the extent to which I needed to help her navigate a world that was not built for her while simultaneously helping others see she is not broken. I mean, sure, she needs support and accommodations, not because she’s broken but to help her learn and live in a more equitable and effective way. In fact, what’s actually broken is what we deem as normal, healthy, and appropriate. This commitment has led me to dig deep on my capacity for discomfort and being misunderstood. This has been built over years from times out in public shopping, at our schools, or, shoot, any public place for that matter because we live in a world where you immediately know if you say or do something that’s breaking the norms.

These last several years also led me to realize the extent to which my daughter is expected to mask her authentic self in service of the comfort of others or norms she’s internalized that imply her authentic way of speaking and moving and engaging in the world. It’s just not okay.


So now, I have a very special place in my heart for those who are living life their own way. Just a side note here: we’re learning autism in girls and women has been so, so underdiagnosed and misunderstood as we have been looking at it through the lens of how young boys presented with autism. For so long, like so many other ways of living and being, we’ve labeled and pathologized and addressed these differences in ways to extinguish their uniqueness while further colluding with stereotypes around being blunt or emotional or obsessive or (this is my favorite) not being able to read a room. These pressures feel like such a power-over move.

With one way of being setting the standard as the baseline of what it means to be a thriving, functioning human in this world, so many people are set up for failure. Over the years I also watched as, you know, they’re mostly moms who were so committed and so devoted to their kids (rightly so) that I was around in the many waiting lobbies over the years during speech and occupational therapy sessions, that I saw them in such a fear of their kids being seen as different or stigmatized and being left out. I mean, there’s a good reason, but I also saw them afraid that their kids weren't gonna be able to follow the path that they had in their mind what was best for their kid. And so, the pressure to try and cure autism through changing diet or extreme behavior modification programs and, shoot, many other things that have since been challenged and even debunked became the mission of so many of these amazing parents I got to know.


But I had to step back from this frenzy, and my husband and I ended up walking our own, braving the wilderness path because the path everyone else was pointing us towards did not feel true to our values or what was best for our daughter. This path has been fruitful, but it’s also had some challenges, and while the awareness and patience has been beautiful over the years, we see the lack of birthday invites and playdates and felt how minimal they were because inclusion is very inconvenient. It’s also uncomfortable and extremely awkward. [Laughs] And my life is one stream of awkward moments after the other.

I’ve learned facing your discomfort with neurodivergence means facing your ableism, and when I face my own ableism I continue to be humbled but also refined. I’m still in it, and I live it with the rest of you in a world that idolizes a certain way of living and a body type and what it means to be successful, and we have a lot of work to do to make our homes, our places of work, our schools, our faith communities and more, equitable and welcoming to those on the autism spectrum.

Which is why I was so excited and honored to talk with today’s guest. I devoured his inaugural book in almost one sitting. He wove his career in political journalism and his passion for music into his book on autism, which delighted me to the core. His book is also a beautiful testament to those with neurodivergence and other intersectional identities that have been marginalized. It’s written in a wonderful way and is now my number one recommendation when people ask for a book to read about autism.

Eric Garcia is the Senior Washington Correspondent for The Independent and the author of We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation.


He’s also a columnist for MSNBC, and he previously worked as an assistant editor at The Washington Post Outlook section and an associate editor at The Hill, as well as a correspondent for The National Journal, MarketWatch, and Roll Call. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, The New Republic, and Salon.com. Eric is a graduate of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Listen for Eric’s vision for his book and why he did not want it to solely be a memoir or focus on an overcoming story that would collude with what he dubbed pity porn. And pay attention to how Eric had to face his own internalized ableism as he navigated his needs for supports and his relationship with success, and notice how Eric connects the dots with public policy and our obsession with a burdened definition of health. Now, please welcome Eric Garcia to The Unburdened Leader podcast. Eric, welcome!

Eric Garcia: Thank you for having me.

Rebecca Ching: I’m really looking forward to this conversation, and I thought I would just jump in and talk about your amazing book, which is actually (in no hyperbole) the best book I’ve read on and about autism, and I just want to hear from you what was going through your mind when you decided to write We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation, and more specifically, what did you want to accomplish, and what did you want to make sure you did not do with this book?

Eric Garcia: Yeah, the what I did not want to do is also I think just as important as what I did want to do. I think the thing that I wanted to do -- I’ll back pedal.

Back in 2015, I was a really young reporter. I was living in Washington DC. I was covering economic policy. I was perfectly happy to do that for the rest of my life.


Then what happened was I was at a party with a guy by the name of Tim Mak, and Tim offered me a drink. I said, “Oh, I don't drink because I’m on the autism spectrum.” I said, “The meds that I take can't mix with alcohol.” Instead of him saying, “Oh, come on! Have a drink with me,” he said, “Oh, there’s a lot of autistic people in DC. You should write about that.” Then he kept pushing it and pushing it, and I thought, “You know, I’m young in my career. I don't want to out myself. I don't want to do that.”

Then what happened, I was working at a national journal at the time, and they announced they were shutting down the print magazine, and so, the editor, a guy by the name of Richard Johnston, I want to just have the more go-for-broke kind of -- I don't know if I can say this -- balls-to-the-wall stories that I can get because he was like, “What are they gonna do, fire me?” I think that was -- so, I proposed this idea that Tim told me to do, and initially I thought it would be just a great front-of-the-book piece, like kind of a chatty, inside-DC piece, but then what happened was he was like, “Well, why should this exist,” like any good editor asks. And I say, “You know, I think we focus too much on trying to help autistic people try to cure autism but not enough on helping autistic people live their own lives. He was like, “Here’s your piece. Go!”

So, I started writing that piece, and then around the same time -- if you remember this is 2015 -- Donald Trump came into my life (came into a lot of people’s lives), and I’m not saying this to be anti-Trump or anything like that, but if you remember at one of the debates -- I think it was the second Republican debate, he was asked about his Tweets about autism and vaccines, and he said that autism was an epidemic. He talked about vaccines, and he talked about all these things, and like, look, Trump is Trump, but there are a lot of people who believe what he believes, you know?


As I’ve said long before, he’s like, I feel like your deal is like, oh, he probably heard this from some rich person at some party, you know? But there was a pipeline for him to get that.

I know, yeah, he’s a Republican, but I grew up in Southern California. There are a lot of Liberals who believe the same thing. And that said to me, as a journalist, was I was like, okay, if our public officials have these really terrible ideas about autism, that must lead to bad policy about autism, right? Politicians are only as good as the information that’s given to them. So, if they're given really terrible information about autism, then that must mean that we’ve made really terrible policy that affects autistic people’s lives.

So, I wrote that piece for National Journal around -- initially my editor wanted it to be 10,000 words. I cut it down to, like, 6,500 words. [Laughs] Then that led to the next question, which was, well, what does it look like if we have all these bad ideas about autism? What does that look like in real life, and then what could we do in realtime to help autistic people? Now, that was really what led to me thinking about it, and I think the other thing that I was just so -- you talked to me about what I didn't want to do. I think I could try to say this in a way that doesn't get in trouble.

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Say it anyways. [Laughs]

Eric Garcia: I have a lot of respect for people who’ve written memoirs about autism, but A) I was 25 at the time. I didn't think I had anything really interesting to say as a memoirist, and B) I think what I wanted to do is I didn't want to -- I think it’s my training as a journalist -- I didn't want it to just be about me.


Because I worried that if it was just about me, then there would almost be this impulsed individualism: “Oh, there’s this really inspiring person on autism, and look at how much he overcame.” That really wasn't what I’m about because my belief is that we’re all a product of things around us that proceed us and come around the same time as us, and it would be a disservice to other autistic people to just talk about myself, and I think the other thing that I really didn't want to do was I didn't want this to be a book about, “Well, autistic people are super-geniuses or superheroes,” or “They're all good at coding and things like that,” which is why I tried to get the voices of non-speaking autistic people in the book. I tried to get people who had intellectual disabilities or people who experienced homelessness. I wanted it to really capture the breadth of the experience of being autistic, and I don't think I succeeded completely. You never do.

Conversely, I didn't want it to be pity porn, so to speak. It was really difficult to thread that needle. I think I probably could have sold more books had I done one or the other.

Rebecca Ching: Mm.

Eric Garcia: I think because nuance doesn't sell books, you know?


But it wouldn't have been true to myself, and it wouldn't have been true to other autistic people’s experiences. What I really wanted to do was I wanted to say that my experience -- and the reason why I write a lot about myself is I try to say my experience is one person’s experience.

Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.

Eric Garcia: But this is how we got to this point. I try to include the context, the history, and the politics around everything when it comes to my life, but also how did that happen, where did we go wrong, but also what can we do differently. I think that was what I was trying to do. So, I think what I was trying not to do was just as important as what I tried to do.

Rebecca Ching: I’ve got a couple follow-ups for you.

Eric Garcia: Ah, that was a long answer!

Rebecca Ching: No, it’s a great answer. I really appreciate it. Thank you. When you're in that initial conversation where your colleague was saying, “You need to write about this,” and you had just said briefly, “Yeah, I don’t know if I want to out myself.”

Eric Garcia: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: Can you tell me a little bit more about that internal rumble about coming out and having just everybody know you’re on the spectrum?

Eric Garcia: Yeah! I mean, my feeling was that it was nobody’s business, and I still kind of feel like -- you know, it’s funny, when I wrote this book, I was like, “Okay, there goes my daily life.” But I think more than that it was like I didn't want there to be an asterisk to my success.

Rebecca Ching: Ooh.

Eric Garcia: I think that that was a lot of internalized ableism because when I was a teenager and I applied for jobs, I did list that I had a disability, and I never heard back from a lot of those jobs. And look, they might not have -- I might just not have been qualified, but I always wondered what if, you know? When you say that you're autistic, everybody brings in their preconceived notions about it, and everybody has an opinion about autism, even if they aren't autistic, even if only their cousin’s coworker’s daughter has autism, you know? More than any other disability, I feel like there’s almost this need to judge and prescribe and become an armchair quarterback about it.


But it was also kind of like this is a very personal thing, and it’s nobody’s business. People who need to know, know, and people who don't, don't. I don't need to tell people. It governs how I live, yeah. Some people say, “Oh, disability doesn't define --.” Oh, yeah, it absolutely defines me. But I don't drive a car. I take the Metra. We’re talking about living in DC. On top of that, again, I didn't want to be the face of autism, and I still don't want to be the face of autism. I’m not an activist. I don't want to be seen as the face of autism. I want to be seen as an autistic person who covers my community and writes about my community. I think that’s a very big difference.

So, again, that’s what I didn't want. That’s what I was trying to actively avoid.

Rebecca Ching: I appreciate that. It feels like you accomplished that in your book. And you also mentioned you wanted to avoid pity porn.

Eric Garcia: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, tell me a little bit more about your experience. That hit hard. As a parent of someone on the autism spectrum, that landed with me when I was reading what you were saying, so I’d love to hear you talk a little more about that.

Eric Garcia: Yeah, well, God provides fresh [Indiscernible] from heaven some days when literally yesterday I was reading Slate, and do you read the “Dear Prudence” column on Slate?

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Yeah. Yeah.

Eric Garcia: Yeah, so, Jenée Desmond-Harris got someone -- or it might have been a rerun. This one mom says that -- this one woman says that she’s getting older. She’s talking about her health problems, and then one of her friends says, “You don't have things nearly as hard. I have a son who’s on the autism spectrum.” You're giving the face, and I know exactly the face you're -- I know that exact face.

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]

Eric Garcia: Yeah, I often don't like the kind of, “I have an autistic kid, and it’s hard, and it’s this,” because very rarely -- and I’m not saying raising autistic kids is easy, no more than raising a neurotypical kid is easy or raising anybody with a chronic illness or anything.


Yeah, raising kids with any kind of disability is difficult because navigating the maze and all that, but very rarely is it productive.

Rebecca Ching: Yes.

Eric Garcia: Almost always it is a way to monetize very personal experiences.

Rebecca Ching: Wow. Yeah.

Eric Garcia: And I really hate that. Even I think people with the best intentions open their kids up to criticism and judgments that they don't deserve. So, even when people have the best of intentions, it can still open a can of worms. It really bothers me -- and maybe it’s my journalistic training. You were taught from the beginning you can't do something without someone’s consent. It is why I try not to interview kids or children, you know?

Rebecca Ching: Mm.

Eric Garcia: Unless I get their explicit consent, you know? I want to get the consent of the kids first then the parents, but I really try hard not to profit off of something that I think could be exploitative, and very much (to borrow from Jim Sinclair) it winds up becoming a self-narrating zoo exhibit.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah.

Eric Garcia: And my other feeling is that those aren't your stories, you know? Those are somebody else’s stories, and the way that we frame these stories is really important.

Rebecca Ching: Hmm.

Eric Garcia: And I think that was really what I was trying to do is think about the way we frame stories.


Rebecca Ching: Yeah, it really was helpful for me because just, even like you said, often when I share that I’m a parent of a kid on the spectrum, there’s almost a bracing because I’m sharing it for context.

Eric Garcia: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: There’s some sort of context, but it often elicits a whole other conversation. I’m not looking for pity porn. I’m looking for context. I’m looking for you to understand the meaning and motivation between why I’m talking about this or advocating for this, that type of thing. But it’s tough. Like you said, there are so many different views of the spectrum. It’s really misunderstood. And you talk about this with politicians --

Eric Garcia: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: -- that they're as good as the information. You talk about my old boss even in this book who wrote The Americans with Disability Act with his incredible aid, Bobby Silverstein and others. But you even address that he kind of shifted some of his questioning towards the end of his term because he kept hearing about it from his constituents as part of his responsibility to ask, but then in the land of sound bytes, then these things do get perpetuated and it leads to a lot of poor social proof in how we do that.

So, I appreciate that, and I also think the same goes for leaders, whether they're business owners, educators, leaders in faith communities. Who is feeding them the information?

Eric Garcia: Who gives information to elected officials is really important.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah.

Eric Garcia: You know, I think a lot about your old boss, Tom Harkin. One of the things that was really important for him, I think, was he had an open line of communication to the Adapters and the Rolling Quads and POW, right? I think that was incredibly important for Tom Harkin and for Ted Kennedy and for Bob Dole and for Tony Coelho.

Rebecca Ching: Right.

Eric Garcia: You know, to have that conversely, I think what was interesting was that the ADA was not made with autistic people in mind. Conversely, the IDEA -- you know, I wrote about --

Rebecca Ching: Right. Yep.


Eric Garcia: -- how they were passed and signed during the same time or I should say the IDEA was a reauthorization of the [Indiscernible] and Children Act.

Rebecca Ching: That’s right.

Eric Garcia: It’s not a coincidence that George Miller, who was a Democrat from California and represented the Bay Area, was the person who helped write the IDEA, and there was that concurring report about how autism had been misunderstood. It’s not a coincidence that he was from the Bay Area because there were a lot of autistic activists from the Bay Area. That was really where the seeds were beginning, where the seeds were being planted. It was really important, I think, to note that Harkin, Dole, Bush, all of them, they didn't have the understanding about autism that we would later have, you know?

So, that is really incredibly important to recognize and contextualize how these things happen. So, you know, it was during the signing of the Individuals -- yeah, they said, “Autism is suffer from a historically inaccurate identification with mental illness, and that including autism in the IDEA was “meant to establish autism definitely as a developmental disability, not as a form of mental illness.” And, you know, that’s not to denigrate people with mental illness. What it was saying was that this is a very specific thing. Up until then, just ten years before, autism was seen as a form of schizophrenia. Like, it had just gotten a separate diagnosis from schizophrenia in 1980. So, it was incredibly important to include those things, and I think that, as you said, it all comes down to how do people get information and what kind of information you can get. That is especially true of policy makers.

[Inspirational Music]


Rebecca Ching: Leading is hard. Leading is also often controversial as you navigate staying aligned to your values, your mission, your boundaries. Navigating the inevitable controversy can challenge your confidence, clarity, and calm. Now, I know you don’t mind making the hard decisions, but often the stakes seem higher and can bring up echoes of old doubts and insecurities during times when you need to feel rock solid on your plan and action. Finding a coach who gets the nuances of your business and leading in our complex and polarized world can help you identify the blocks that keep you playing at safe and small.

Now, leading today is not a fancy title or fluffy bragging rights. It is brave and bold work to stay the course when the future is so unknown and the doubts and pains from the past keep showing up to shake things up. Internal emotional practices and systemic strategies are needed to keep the protector of cynicism at bay and foster a hope that is actionable and aligned.

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[Inspirational Music]


You mention internalized ableism, and parenting my kids is definitely teasing out all of that within me, and it continues to do so. You write about some common and yet very harmful sentiments people have often said to you or others that you interviewed, talked about, and I’d love to read a few and just have you speak about what comes up for you.

Eric Garcia: [Laughs] Yes. Okay, let’s do this!

Rebecca Ching: Let’s do this.

Eric Garcia: Lightning round!

Rebecca Ching: Lighting round! So, the first one is, “You don't look autistic.”

Eric Garcia: Yeah, you know, I mean, I think that that’s one where I’m like, okay, what does your version of autism look like because, yes, autism does look like somebody who can't speak.

Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.

Eric Garcia: And it looks like somebody who has an intellectual disability. But also it could look like me. It could look like your neighbor down the street. It could look like your coworker. There was that, but also I think that one of the things is that we have a very antiquated look on autism, or if somebody can speak, we tend to think of them as Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, and that’s a whole other thing. You can listen to a whole podcast I did dragging Rain Main.

So, there’s that, but also I think one of the weird things is that I think a lot of people -- again, people bring their preconceived notions to autism all the time, and autism looks like very different things, but also, we kind of limit what autistic people can and can't do. So, a perfect example I give in the book is there’s this young man named Hari Srinivasan, and at the time he was a student at Berkeley, and he is nonspeaking. So, by virtue of that, a lot of people would meet Hari and probably think he’s “low functioning,” but he graduated from Berkeley, and now he’s at Vanderbilt getting a graduate degree.

Conversely, I interviewed this woman who went by the pseudonym Aria, she can speak, is married, has a house, but she couldn't graduate college, and she couldn't find work. So, who’s the high functioning or low functioning?

Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.


Eric Garcia: You know, because it goes to why, and my response is that those labels don't work.

Rebecca Ching: Oh, that’s my next one is, “You’re high-functioning autistic, so you don't have it that bad.”

Eric Garcia: Yeah. Yeah! Well, the response that I have is that, yeah, someone might be high functioning, but they can still have meltdowns.

Rebecca Ching: Yep.

Eric Garcia: They can still have sensory overload.

Rebecca Ching: Yes.

Eric Garcia: I think that those labels don't really work because high functioning and low functioning, A) this goes back to Hans Asperger.

Rebecca Ching: Yes, oof.

Eric Garcia: The difference between somebody who’s a Nazi and somebody who collaborated is the Nazis is just a uniform. I don't care if you have a Nazi party card, you sent kids to their death, so A) that’s a very eugenics idea, so let’s just put that out there. B) I think that it’s really based on what we see, on what neurotypical standards a society sees rather than what they can actually accomplish, going back to what I said. Hari, many people would think he’s low functioning, but then a lot of people might say that somebody else is high functioning, but if they have trouble finding a job or if they have a learning disorder, then who’s the high functioning or the low functioning? It goes to the fact that -- I don't know if I can say this on the podcast -- but that’s really just bullshit. It really does a disservice, and automatically what it does is it sets expectations at these ridiculous benchmarks.

Rebecca Ching: Yes.

Eric Garcia: So, think about it this way. If you call somebody low functioning, that gives policy makers more of an incentive to not spend as much in schools --

Rebecca Ching: Oh, yeah.


Eric Garcia: -- to spend as much in helping with transition development. It is all the more incentive to send them into common care settings. Whereas if someone is high functioning, a lot of people might say, “Oh, well, these are the people we really need to invest in,” but conversely, the flipside is, well, they don't need that much. You don't need to spend that much money on them. You don't need to have that many resources or adapt our offices more accessible. Again, these labels are meant as a rationale or an excuse to not allocate the proper resources.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, there’s a lot behind it, and so, you kind of lead up to another problematic sentiment is, “You're smart. Why do you need accommodations?”

Eric Garcia: Uh, yeah, the answer to that is -- I mean, because I thought that for the longest time. I write about this in the book. I thought, “Okay, I made it. I don't need that many accommodations,” ignoring the fact that the only way I got there was through accommodations. What we don't realize is that accommodations don't lower the bar, they just allow more people to participate and allow people to be judged on their merits and allow them to rise and fall on their merits rather than a lack of accommodations. Once you make a place accessible, then somebody can succeed or fail based on their own skills. It’s funny because a lot of people say, “Well, we don't have a lot of autistic students here, you can't be autistic.” I’m like uh, that’s really kind of a tautology. You don't have autistic students here because you haven't made it accessible.

Rebecca Ching: Ooh. [Laughs] Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. 

Eric Garcia: I went to The University of North Carolina, which, as they like to say, is the first public university. But a lot of the buildings were not that accessible.

Rebecca Ching: Right.

Eric Garcia: They solved a lot of them, or more like they were forced to, but some buildings were not that accessible.


So, imagine that these places are not that accessible for people with “visible disabilities.” How much more inaccessible are they for people with “invisible disabilities”?

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, I have another doozy for you that actually my husband and I heard a lot from people we knew early on in my daughter’s diagnosis was, “Well, what can you do to cure your autism?”

Eric Garcia: Yeah. Yeah, well, I mean, there’s a whole [Indiscernible] for that, and you can read the book if you want to understand it, but it’s rooted in fear, right? The one thing that unites the anti-vaxxers and the cure-freaks and all of them is this underlying idea that autism is a bad thing and needs to be removed from society, and that is really kind of terrifying in a lot of ways. There was this study that came out. I don't know if you saw it last week. There was a study that showed that there’s this test that apparently with a single strand of hair they can be able to find even before autistic kids start to miss milestones. I don't know if you saw that. That raises a lot of ethical questions for me, you know? Like, okay, but how much is this you kind of playing God and you kind of determining which traits you want and you kind of engineering the kid you want rather than helping the kid that you have. That raises a lot of ethical quandaries that really worry me.

Rebecca Ching: Well, you also wrote about this really poignantly that by curing and in fact erasing something that’s intrinsically a big part of you is erasing you. That really landed with me, too, of we’ve got to get rid of something that makes you you.


Eric Garcia: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: And that in itself is deeply problematic, too.

Eric Garcia: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Whenever I talk about this, people automatically say, “Oh, well, you’re not saying autism is a disability,” or, “You're not saying that there aren’t --,” there are absolutely.  Something like 30% of autistic adults have epilepsy. That’s a bad thing. We should want to try to figure out how to mitigate that, how to help people not have -- because people die from epileptic seizures. It’s one of the biggest killers of autistic people. Heart disease is one of the biggest killers of autistic people without an intellectual disability, followed by suicide.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah.

Eric Garcia: A lot of people have gastrointestinal problems. Of course you want to solve those things. I think what worries a lot of people like myself is you almost, by focusing so much on the autism, it comes at the expense of focusing on those things that autistic people really need, and also (to borrow from Jim Sinclair) you're basically saying the kid you have, you wish they didn't exist.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah.

Eric Garcia: Like I say, at what point do you kind of -- you’re saying the way that they live and the way that they love and the way that they speak and the way that they don't speak or the way that they communicate, that that’s not a valid way of being.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah.

Eric Garcia: So, it raises more ethical quandaries than it fixes.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, and really, you wrote about this too and you touched on it just now, instead of doing the things we can to help folks on the spectrum live more vibrant, safe, healthy, vital lives, we don't want to just exile it. We want to raise the bar in how we are supporting those in our culture. So yeah, thank you for allowing me to touch on some of those quickfire questions.


I want to take you back. You mentioned The University of North Carolina. You went to Chapel Hill, and you shared a tender story in your book from the day that you graduated.

Eric Garcia: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: Again, I think there’s just as my daughter and I are just talking -- she’s in ninth grade, so we’re talking about colleges or in the early stages.

Eric Garcia: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: But there was this moment where you’re at graduation. You see your family who had just rushed there. You looked at them. You looked around this community that you cultivated, that you considered home. What were you thinking in that moment?

Eric Garcia: I think what I was thinking was, on one end, I was grateful that I had this experience. It felt like I loved my friends and I loved the experience that I had. On the other, I think I was kind of just saying, “Oh, wow, this is the end of something,” and I really didn't want to leave. I didn't want to say goodbye to this really important thing, this time when I really felt accepted and loved by people. So, it was really hard for me to do that. I think that that was really kind of this duality.

Rebecca Ching: Right.

Eric Garcia: But it was also kind of a learning and growing moment of, okay, everything is finite.

Rebecca Ching: Mm.

Eric Garcia: But what do you take away from it? What do you learn from it? So, yeah.

Rebecca Ching: In your book, you write about two dominant myths surrounding autistic people in the workforce specifically that I really appreciated. You talked about low expectations on the ability or capacity for work or types of work, and then two, viewing those with autism as hyper-competent in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. So, I’d love for you to walk me through --

Eric Garcia: Or almost hyper-productive, right?

Rebecca Ching: Hyper-productive, yes.

Eric Garcia: Hyper-competent and hyper-productive, yeah, those are kind of the two big selling points that you see a lot of companies selling now. Again, it was I really didn't like that binary.


And I think that journalism and media as a whole (and I’m saying this because I’m in media and I can understand this), we kind of like those two poles. We vibe off those extremes. 

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, we do.

Eric Garcia: There are a lot of people in between, and also, we wind up boxing in the people on those two ends of the pole in ways that don't really serve either of them, you know?

So, I think one of the things that I saw was a lot of people who worked in science, technology, engineering, mathematics fields, yeah, they were successful, but it took them a lot of work. It took them working in places that were accessible or adaptable. The people who kind of weren't able to find jobs, there’s a reason for it. It wasn't because they weren't competent. A lot of them were smart, hardworking, competent people. They just didn't have the same opportunities.

Rebecca Ching: Right.

Eric Garcia: And then there are all of those people in between, and I think that from my experience, meeting so many autistic people, I was like, wait, these people didn't succeed because they were smart or great. It was because they just didn't get the same opportunities as everybody else. I think it’s that line from The Great Gatsby. In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning in my head ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the same advantages you had. So, in the same way, I think that what I saw was I was like autistic people should be allowed to be extraordinary and ordinary at the same time.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah. [Laughs]

Eric Garcia: We shouldn't have to end those poles. I understand the impulse behind people making these kinds of hard sells. You see a lot of these autism-at-work programs, but it almost reminds me of the kind of model minority you see with Asian Americans like they all go to medical school because they have tiger moms and things like that, or it’s just as ridiculous as, say, “Oh, Black people are inherently better at sports because of their physicality,” or things like that. It is very patronizing even when it’s in the fashion of being very [Indiscernible].


Rebecca Ching: Yeah. So then how can neurotypical leaders in academia (business, mental health, all the spaces) counter these myths in practical ways?

Eric Garcia: I think the thing you need to do is listen to autistic people, first and foremost. I think the other thing is you need to also ask yourself, “Okay, where did you get this information? How did this come about? Why did this come about?” These things we believe don't exist in a vacuum. Just because someone says something, the power of somebody just saying something and it becoming just accepted but not questioning why we take it as gospel, you know, but it is so powerful to just want to believe something because it jives with what we believe already.

Rebecca Ching: Exactly.

Eric Garcia: So, I think it’s really important because on one end, the book is about autism, but it’s also a book about disinformation.

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] It sure is. You bring up a really good point though, too, that if we’re gonna listen to folks on the spectrum to learn how we can counter those myths, we need to have folks around us on the spectrum.

Eric Garcia: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: We have to be intentional about that and, again, not silo in the binary of the low expectation or the hyper-productive/hyper-competent dynamic is hurtful to all. It really is hurting. It hurts everyone in the community.


So, I appreciate that, and you go into it in such a thorough way in the book, so I encourage everyone listening to check that out.

I want to shift just briefly because you touched on the asterisks. You didn't want to have an asterisks kind of by --

Eric Garcia: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: -- different things on your resume. So, I’m curious how you view success and how it’s different from what you refer to as pity- or inspiration-porn type of success often touted with those with autism.

Eric Garcia: Yeah, so, I mean, I think that one of the things I should say is I’ve let go of that idea now, and it’s like my feeling now is that my accomplishments are my accomplishments, and I know what it took for me to get to where I go. So, one of the things that I often say is that, yeah, I’m pretty sure that I got into UNC because of affirmative action. There’s no way I could have gotten into the university without affirmative action, but that doesn't take away the hours of work, the long nights that I spent in the library. That doesn't take the going to tutoring sessions all this and that.

So, the asterisks -- it’s really important for me to now ask, okay, who’s putting the asterisks on? Just background: I’m a big San Antonio Spurs fan (NBA), and they won their first championship the year that there was a strike. There was an NBA lockout, and so, a lot of people say, “Oh, well, that was a fluke,” but then the San Antonio Spurs won four more championships after that, so can you really put an asterisk after that, you know? Yeah, we all kind of have asterisks on our success, and who are the ones who are measuring the benchmarks?

Rebecca Ching: There we go.

Eric Garcia: It’s really all about you and how you succeeded and how you got there. You know what your accomplishments are, hopefully. There are some people who are Dunning and Kruger and think that they were born on third base and thought they hit a triple, you know?


But there are also people who I think you don't have to abide by, “Oh, I didn't do this, so ergo I don't belong here.” No, you got there because for whatever reason you got there, you know? Some people, I don't know, if you're George Santos then there’s a whole other thing, but --

Rebecca Ching: By lying! That’s not success! That’s not success! Come on! [Laughs]

Eric Garcia: That’s very different.

Rebecca Ching: It is. [Laughs]

Eric Garcia: It is incredibly different.

Rebecca Ching: But I see your point. Definitely. I’m curious, how did writing your book impact your view of success, personally and in terms of just even in those on the autism spectrum?

Eric Garcia: Yeah, I mean, I think that what it did is it forced me to shed a lot of my preconceived notions about autism.

Rebecca Ching: Mm.

Eric Garcia: Like, it forced me to shed my beliefs about my internalized ableism.

Rebecca Ching: I could tell that.

Eric Garcia: And the expectations I set for non-speaking autistic people or autistic people with intellectual disabilities. It forced me to shift. If you don't walk away from writing about something without your beliefs changing somewhat a little bit, then you're doing it wrong, you know?

Rebecca Ching: Right.

Eric Garcia: I think that you have to let the facts speak for themselves, and you have to change your beliefs. Do that, and if you don't do that, then you haven't learned anything. I think that what I learned is that there are multiple ways to be happy as an autistic person. Again, who is measuring whether someone has a fulfilling or full life? Who builds those benchmarks is an important question.

I think the other thing that I learned is that autistic people have been here all along, and it’s just that we haven’t listened to them.


I think what it did is it forced me to say, okay, my community isn’t listened to, and I want to make sure that they're treated fairly, so how do I take this and do it with other communities? How do I make sure that I’m not writing very myopically when I have to write about other communities? How do I take what I’ve learned from doing this and apply it elsewhere? I think that’s really important.

Rebecca Ching: Ah, it’s powerful.

Eric Garcia: I want to make sure that I’m not pigeonholing a community and not writing in a patronizing way about a community because I want to write about other things. I want to make sure that I tell other stories accurately when I’m given the opportunity. Then there are other times where I need to fall back.

Rebecca Ching: I can't wait to see what else you write. To wrap up, I’ve got some quick-fire questions for you. Are you ready?

Eric Garcia: Okay.

Rebecca Ching: These are a little bit more fun and a little lighter than the ones earlier. I’m curious, what are you reading right now?

Eric Garcia: Oh, okay. So, I’m reading my friend Ali Vitali’s book, Electable, which is really good. It’s a book about the whole question about electability around women running for office.

Rebecca Ching: Okay.

Eric Garcia: Ali is a reporter at NBC news, and she covered Elizabeth Ward’s campaign and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, so she does a really great job.

I’m also reading an audiobook of The Power Broker. So, I made it a point. I visited New York City a while back, and I said, “Okay, I’m going to read Robert Caro’s The Power Broker after visiting New York City because I want to understand this.” I said, “After I do this, then I’m gonna try to listen to the Lyndon Johnson books.” I’m making it a point now to -- because I have such a short attention span, I want to make sure that I read one big book through audiobook, and audiobook I’ve noticed really helps me.

Rebecca Ching: Nice. Good to know. Best TV show or movie you've seen recently?

Eric Garcia: Oh, good question. I really liked watching The Bear recently.

Rebecca Ching: That’s my favorite TV show of last year! Oh, what did you like about it? What did you love about it?

Eric Garcia: I liked just the camera angles. It really felt like you were working in a kitchen the whole time. It was stressful. It was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever watched.


Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Totally.

Eric Garcia: But it was so incredibly done. It was well written. Also, like everybody else, I love Tandoor

Rebecca Ching: Oh, so good.

Eric Garcia: Yeah. As far as movies, the last movie I saw that was really great -- the last time I had a lot of fun in a movie theatre was when I went to go see Glass Onion. So…

Rebecca Ching: Oh, my gosh, yeah. [Laughs] That was a ride. Favorite eighties bit of pop culture? I have a feeling I know where you're gonna go with this.

Eric Garcia: Oh, okay. I’m a big fan of eighties hair metal. So, people who’ve seen me Tweet about that.

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Me too!

Eric Garcia: I’m a big Van Halen fan. I’ve Tweeted a lot about the story of how I met Slash in Guns N’ Roses when I was 12.

Rebecca Ching: I was jealous when I read that, I just have to say.

Eric Garcia: Yeah, I wrote about it in the book.

Rebecca Ching: Are you a David Lee Roth or a Sammy Hagar?

Eric Garcia: David Lee Roth everyday. Everyday.

Rebecca Ching: Everyday? Oh, yes, the jump. Every time I see him do that toe-jump, the eighties part of me is stoked.

Eric Garcia: Yeah!

Rebecca Ching: What is a mantra that you have right now?

Eric Garcia: I think one of the things that I’ve learned that I’ve done is that, you know, I was so busy writing the book, I was so busy seeing my family, I was so busy working and covering the midterms and all that. I think one of the things that my mantra is this year, my resolution is to really just be present for the people around me. I think that’s what my mantra is.

Rebecca Ching: Be present with those around you, I love it. What is an unpopular opinion you hold?

Eric Garcia: Oh…

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] 

Eric Garcia: I’m trying to think how much trouble I want to get into.

Rebecca Ching: The more the better. [Laughs]

Eric Garcia: Okay, this is one that will be unpopular. I know it’ll be unpopular just because I know you're a political junkie and worked on Capitol Hill for a while. I actually think Trump is not as weakened after the midterms than people think he is. I think that when Trump gets back on the road and gets back doing his rallies and things like that, I think that the “magic” will come back.


Again, I covered a few Trump rallies during the midterms. I think that he does have a lot of influence. I think the fact that he was whipping votes for Kevin McCarthy this last week shows he still has a lot of influence in the GOP.

And also, Ron DeSantis has a shot, don't get me wrong, but I think a lot of people are inflating his abilities just because he’s in Florida. So, if there’s one thing to watch in 2023 and 2024, just watch that. I don't think Ron DeSantis has it in the bag. I think as much as people may or may not like it, yeah, Trump still has a lot of influence in the GOP. So, yeah, that’s my unpopular opinion.

Rebecca Ching: I don't disagree with you, sadly. Who or what inspires you to be a better leader and human?

Eric Garcia: Oh, I think the thing that inspires me is recognizing that everybody is going through stuff. One of the things that I’ve learned is that empathy breeds resiliency because if you realize that when people are giving you hell, chances are they're going through hell. I think that that allows you to keep going and keep pushing forward and not take things too personally. So, I think that’s working.

Rebecca Ching: Mm, yeah. That’s beautiful. Eric, thank you so much for making time. I know that you’re on deadlines, so thank you for working this interview into your day. Where can people find you if they want to connect with you?

Eric Garcia: Yeah, unfortunately I Tweet way too much, so Tweet me @ericmgarcia. Follow me. I do a lot more autism stuff on Instagram so @ericmgarcia14 is there. You can also email me. You can read my stuff over at The Independent, my column over at MSNBC, and yeah, let’s talk. Reach out to me. I like listening and hearing from people. Yeah.


Rebecca Ching: All right, Eric. It’s been a pleasure! Thank you so much for your time.

Eric Garcia: Thank you.

Rebecca Ching: Okay, before you go, I want you to think about what you define as broken and what you define as whole. Now, Eric today, he gave us a lot to think about. I know for me when I was thinking about this word broken, I looked up the definition, and one of the definitions means “the opposite of whole.” We chase some idea of wholeness and do our best to exile any parts of us that would be rejected or deemed shameful for fear of not belonging. This is just tragic, and as our understanding around living in a neurodivergent culture grows, we need to welcome and make space for the many ways to learn, connect, work, live, and love. At the same time, these shifts on what we deem normal become a threat to those who are holding on with such a tight grip to status quo, standards, and norms. But when you redefine your definition of normal, it will require you to move out of your boxes of what it means to be enough and (gosh, this term makes me gag) normal. And this is the work of an Unburdened Leader.

Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. If this episode was moving to you and impacted you in a positive way, I’d be honored if you went and left a review and a rating and shared it with someone else that you think would benefit from it. Now, you can find this episode, show notes, sign up for the free Unburdened Leader weekly email, and get free Unburdened Leader resources, along with finding out ways to work with me at www.rebeccaching.com. 

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