Kevin: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2018, nearly one in 44 children in the United States have been identified as being somewhere on the autism spectrum. To ensure that neurodiverse students can succeed, schools must be committed to understanding and supporting their unique needs. What are some of the most common myths about individuals on the autism spectrum? What should schools understand about these students? How can we best prepare students on the spectrum to thrive in life? This is What I Want to Know. Today, I'm joined by Eric Garcia to find out.
Kevin: Eric Garcia is a senior Washington correspondent for The Independent, a prominent online newspaper based in the United Kingdom. Over his career in journalism, he has written for MSNBC, Roll Call, The National Journal, and MarketWatch. Eric is also the author of We're Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation, a book that seeks to reshape how society understands and works with people on the autism spectrum. Today, he joins us to discuss how schools can better meet the needs of neurodiverse students. Eric, welcome to the show.
I've actually been looking forward to this conversation because of your own experience living with autism, but I want to start with your journey. You are an accomplished journalist, worked with various journalism networks and channels. I did want to ask you, how did you get into that space, particularly political reporting, which seems a little interesting particularly these days?
Eric: I mean, growing up, I wanted to be a musician. We were talking about, I made a Spinal Tap reference earlier. I played in heavy metal bands and rock and roll bands and garage bands when I was a teenager. I wanted to be a musician and that was what I wanted to do.
Kevin: That's even more of a reason why I want to know how you got into journalism if you were a heavy metal band player.
Eric: I think that my mom when I was 14, 15, was like, "All right, buddy, you need to find a job. You need to find something you can do other than music." I think what happened was my guitar teacher at the time said, "You seem to really like the stories behind the music, behind the songs," because I used to read all the magazines and the stories about the music that I love. He's like, "Have you ever thought about music journalism?" I thought, okay, that's a way to get a job and still be around music, but have somewhat of a steady paycheck. Nobody told me about the journalism industry and how convoluted this was. This is like in the 2000s.
And then what happened was in 2007, I was working for my high school newspaper and they just needed somebody to do write-ups of the 2008 presidential primaries. Those guys just seemed like they were having so much fun covering that, everybody on TV doing that. That just seemed like the most fun job to do. When it came time and I was thinking about it, I was like, maybe this could be something that I could do.
Kevin: Well, and you've actually done very well as a political reporter. You've had a variety of experiences. I mean, before we leave this, I have to ask, do you still play heavy metal?
Eric: I still do. Obviously I don't do that as much as I would like to. I mean, I got a few guitars here in my apartment. I still play music when I can. That's still a very big part of who I am and it's always going to be a part of what I do. I still love going to concerts. The first concert I went to go see after the pandemic was Rage Against the Machine. I think that that was really what I was trying... It's still very, very big for me.
Kevin: One thing that you've talked about is in your book, which we'll get to in greater detail, but the transition between high school and college. It helped change your views about education generally.
Eric: It's interesting because I think by the time so many students with disabilities get to college, they've gone through the ringer of K12 and asking for accommodations and seeing how arduous it is and how much you have to fight for so little. I think that a lot of students with disabilities, and this is what people have told me and this is also my experience, by the time they get to college, they essentially say, "Well, it's not worth it," and they don't ask for accommodations, especially if they are, I guess you could say, able passing or if they have invisible disabilities. There is almost this feeling of, I don't need that, or I don't want people to look at me differently, or I'm not "really disabled."
I think all of those messages are ingrained from an early age because disability is seen as a deficit; rather than, “There's a group of people that you need certain accommodations to be on the same playing field with everybody else.”
Kevin: I don't know why this came to me, but I visited schools all over the country, all over the world. I remember visiting a kid who ended up being valedictorian of his class who had a physical disability. He was in a rural community. He was in a wheelchair, but the school said they didn't have the resources to build a ramp for him. They just had stairs everywhere. He showed me where he had just went on the grass and just made it work. His parents said they just got tired of trying to get the school to build a ramp for him. He just made his own little path on the grass.
Eric: It shows how difficult and excruciating the process of getting accommodations is. A lot of people with disabilities make that calculated decision. What is the net value and the net loss of asking for accommodations? And that's unfortunate, I think, because when I got accommodations, my academic life was night and day. I did much better, but I didn't think it was worth it for the longest time.
Kevin: Well, let me ask you this, because so much of your experience growing up and dealing with these kinds of issues prompted you to write the book, We're Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation. What specifically were you trying to accomplish when you set out to write this book?
Eric: The way that I came to this was I noticed that almost any conversation about autism, any time you talked about autism in politics, and this was in 2015 when I began writing about autism, began and ended with vaccines. We should say right from the get-go, vaccines do not cause autism. That is a myth. It's been debunked. What I wanted to do as a political journalist, if I did anything, was to move the goalposts to reframe the question of, what do we do about autism?
Because I think for a long time, the answer to that question was, what do we do about autistic people? The question now I think is, we shouldn't try to fix autistic people, we should help them live and move throughout this world in the best way possible.
Kevin: What about those myths? Let's get as many on the table as possible, because I think it's real important. I mean, one as you said is vaccines. But what are some of the other common myths that just seem to consume the discussion about people who are on the autistic spectrum?
Eric: I think there are so many. I think one of them is that there was this idea that autism only affects largely adolescent, mostly male, mostly white children. Well, guess who can afford the most services? It's upper class or upper middle class white families. And because the research focused so much on boys, that means that girls were ignored and people of color were ignored. That’s the big one. We've realized that the racial diagnosis gap is closing a little bit, not as much, and we're seeing the gender gap narrowing a little bit, not as much as it should, but a lot of it is just based on who… It was a selective bias for a long time.
I think the other one is this idea, I don't know if it's so much a myth, but it's just this common mindset in our head, and I mentioned this, is that we tend to think of autism as something that only affects children. When we think of autism, we inherently associate it with children. Well, guess what? Autism is a lifelong condition and people who are born autistic are likely going to die autistic. But we don't think about lifespan issues. On top of that, I think that there's this idea that either autistic people can't work, or if they work, they work in Silicon Valley.
And that's not to say that there aren't a lot of people in Silicon Valley. I went to the Bay Area in my book and I profiled a family, and I profiled a company that hires autistic people. What I'm saying though is that those aren't the only people. The other one I think is that a lot of people think of the terms high and low functioning when they think of autism. They think of people like myself as very high functioning, and then people who maybe have an intellectual disability or people who can't speak as "low functioning."
In the book, I talk about this where I said that I'm more of a fan of the term high support needs and low support needs, because I tend to think that functioning labels really flatten the experience. Because if you call someone low functioning, what it does is it gives a lot of incentive to almost patronize them or to say they're not going to amount to much, so we don't need to invest that much in them. Whereas I think that if you call people high functioning, it almost kind of erases the very legitimate needs that they have. That binary doesn't do anybody good, I don't think. A perfect example that I used when I was writing this book is that I profile a woman by the name of Aria. That's a pseudonym.
She's married, she has kids, all that, but she had trouble graduating college and she had trouble finding work. Whereas there's this young man I profiled, his name is Hari Srinivasan. He is non-speaking. He just graduated from Berkeley a few months ago. He's now started graduate school at Vanderbilt University. At that point, when you think about those things, you have to ask yourself, "Okay, by those standards, who's the high functioning and who's the low functioning one?" You realize that that binary just is... It doesn't work.
Kevin: Yeah, that's an excellent point. That's an excellent point. I want to explore that in this way. So many people don't understand, the uninformed, what neurodiversity is, what neurodiverse education is. This sort of speaks to that issue, doesn't it?
Eric: Neurodiversity basically argues not just for autistic people, but for people of ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette syndrome, basically any type of neurotype that is divergent from what we would call neurotypical, shouldn't be cured, but rather they should be accepted and accommodated and incorporated into the larger sphere. I think that is important for education in a lot of ways, because education is the starting point for a lot of things in how children are taught and what's ingrained in their heads when they're kids often goes with them for the rest of their lives.
Kevin: Let me ask you another thing. It's become almost fashionable for people to say things like, "Oh, they're on the spectrum." There's this sort of labeling that's taking place, even people who may not be on the spectrum. Talk to me about that dynamic we're seeing in society.
Eric: Yeah. It's almost become a proxy for someone who is socially inept. I remember last year when Elon Musk came out as autistic when he was hosting Saturday Night Live. On one end, I think I was like, "Oh, this is interesting," but also I was like, "This doesn't surprise me at all." What I worried was that people would pathologize any behavior that they didn't like about him as him being autistic.
Kevin: I've been in settings where people that may seem socially awkward and someone will say, "Well, they must be on the spectrum." I've even asked, "Well, what do you mean by that?" You characterized it best. It's become a proxy designation or label. I do think we need to be aware of that. Let's go back to schools and education, because I want to go into two final areas. One is this issue of job training. More and more schools are really focused on school to career.
There's career learning, the old vocational ED stuff. There's the STEM careers. There's technology being used as early as middle school to introduce kids to pathways. When it comes to how schools work with students in the career space and job training, how should they integrate students who happen to be autistic into the discussion in a supportive way?
Eric: This goes back to that myth that autistic people only work in the STEM projects or the STEM sectors and things like that. I think it's important to expose autistic people in schools, autistic students, to as many varied types of job training opportunities as you would anybody else. Because I think if you try to shoehorn some autistic people into the STEM sectors, they're going to have a bad time, and they're going to crash and burn. I should say, I got a C minus in my computer coding class in college, and I think it was out of pity from my professor.
I barely would pass math. I would skate by the skin of my teeth when I was in math in college and in high school. I think that when you automatically just assume, "Okay, they're autistic, so let's just introduce them to the STEM subjects," not really. I mean, if some want to go into the STEM field, great, cool, but we should also open them to language arts or any others or trades or any other type of practice that their neurotypical peers would be exposed to.
Kevin: This is the last question, Eric. This is what I really want to know. When it comes to schools, how can they identify? I'm taking the job training part of it aside. But just in terms of managing the curriculum and the educational experience of young people who are on the spectrum, how can schools best help those students who have diverse needs and, frankly, educational support needs?
Eric: I think on the base level, we should assume I think. I tend to think that 90% of educators want to do the right thing. I'd even raise that number to 95. But a lot of times they're strapped for cash. As we know, the federal government has never lived up to its obligation to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That means that there's just scarce resources. I think the thing that you educators can do is look at, okay, we have these scarce resources, but what can we do? How do we stretch them out?
Obviously what works for one person isn't going to work for everybody, but create a list of best practices so that you can stretch out every dollar, so to speak, and make it so that you design the education programs with diverse students in mind. That way you're not doing it on the back end, which just costs a lot more, both in time and money and other resources.
Kevin: I love the idea of as opposed to looking at things in a supplemental way, how do you integrate all this in the beginning of the process? I think that makes a whole lot of sense. I thank you for that. Eric Garcia, thank you so much. This was a really worthwhile conversation. I appreciate you joining us on What I Want to Know.
Thanks for listening to What I Want to Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. Write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want to Know.
Eric Garcia is a senior Washington correspondent for The Independent, a prominent online newspaper based in the United Kingdom. During his career in journalism, he has written for MSNBC, Roll Call, the National Journal, and MarketWatch.
Eric is also the author of We're Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation, a book that seeks to reshape how society understands and works with people on the autism spectrum.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.