The progressive frontrunner in New York's highly competitive Democratic primary for a newly redrawn district can blaze a lot of trails in D.C. But for this autistic writer, the candidate's openness about being neurodivergent is a ceiling she never imagined seeing shattered.
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As an Autistic rising junior at Mount Holyoke College, I never thought it was within the realm of possibility that I’d see an openly Autistic congressperson before I graduated. The incredible campaign of Yuh-Line Niou, who is currently the frontrunner in the Democratic primary for New York’s District 10, signifies a positive shift in our country’s perception of autism and disability, especially among women, immigrants, and Asian-Americans.
Niou is running in the recently redrawn 10th Congressional district against a cohort of 16 other Democratic candidates—including Rep. Mondaire Jones, who currently represents District 17—in what has become a contentious primary for southern New York. Niou currently represents New York’s 65th Assembly District, which lies within the 10th Congressional district. In her six years as an Assemblyperson, Niou has been the first Asian-American person to represent Chinatown, and was the prime sponsor of 15 bills that became law, including one establishing a toll-free hotline for workplace claims of sexual harassment. She has been a powerful advocate for tenant and consumer protections, and has fought for affordable housing and fair taxation of the ultra wealthy.
As a congressional candidate, she wants to build on that work, running on a platform of universal healthcare, abortion rights, environmental justice, affordable housing, and more. And if she wins the Democratic primary on August 23, and the general election on November 8, she will be the first Asian-American person not only representing two Chinatowns in New York City—in Brooklyn and in Manhattan—but the first openly Autistic member of Congress.
Niou learned she was on the spectrum when she was 22. Looking back at her childhood, she says it should have been “obvious” to teachers, but her Autistic traits were overlooked. Niou believes that due to misconceptions about autism, as well as systemic racism within the educational and medical systems, teachers and doctors often mistook her non-speaking behaviors for a language barrier—even though she’d emigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was six months old. Her family likes to share a story about the time people at her school were stunned when she aced her standardized tests because “obviously [she] didn’t speak English”—they assumed she had to have been cheating. And there were other signs that she was on the spectrum, like when her little sister was hitting milestones before she was, teaching her how to tie her shoes and ride a bike. No one had thought to recommend that Niou be evaluated to see whether she was neurodivergent.
Studies have shown that women and nonbinary people tend to be diagnosed later than men. This is because autism can present differently in females and nonbinary people, who typically are better at masking their behaviors as neurotypical. And, as in the case of Niou, other Autistic behaviors, like being, might be incorrectly assumed to be a cultural or an English-as-a-second-language barrier. So immigrants or people who emigrated to the U.S. when they were young children are frequently diagnosed later than their American-born, native-English-speaking counterparts.
Niou tells me what prompted her to pursue an autism diagnosis: She was paying a condolence call, dropping off food for the father of a friend who’d been killed in a car accident. When the father came out to greet Niou, he found her organizing the food she’d brought and said, “‘Oh, I didn’t know that [my son] had a friend on the Autism spectrum.’” It was an eye-opening moment for Niou. The man suggested she get evaluated. He told me, “It’ll make you feel better.’”
He was right. Niou said that getting that diagnosis gave her a huge sense of relief. “I think that it’s because it gave me an explanation on ways that I was communicating,” she told me. I had a similar experience when I was diagnosed as being on the spectrum. For me, and a lot of other Autistic individuals, hearing that word attributed to you and truly knowing what that means answers questions we didn’t even know we had about ourselves. Niou admitted that her biggest regret in her political career thus far is not speaking about her “day-to-day experience” of life on the spectrum earlier.
Being Autistic informs our day-to-day experiences. For Niou, her hyperfocus can sometimes make it difficult to stay in the moment. She told me that ever since she was a child, she would lose track of the world around her while reading. That would earn her punishment from teachers when she did it instead of paying attention to the main lesson. so in class her teacher would punish her for getting lost in her reading during class and not paying attention to the main lesson. Sometimes Niou will focus so intently on finding the exact words for what she wants to say, she gets stuck and can’t forward with a conversation. She tells me she has worked to force herself to move ahead and abandon any idealized, perfect word. “Though it is so hard for my hyperfocus!” she added. So she has figured out a couple “physical tricks” to stay in the moment— like holding her own hand. She will also say a particular sentence to bring herself out of it. “I’m not gonna tell you what the sentence is because it’s weird,” Niou says, laughing.
But hyperfocus is also a superpower. Because, as Niou explains, it allows her to see common ground among different groups and bring them together. It also allows her to truly delve into proposed legislation in a “holistic way.”
“I love policy, so much so [that] whenever I look at a problem, I love to think about all of the different perspectives,” says Niou. “This is one of the reasons why I love to listen to my constituents, because it helps me to understand and grasp that one policy issue a lot more. It also makes it so I’m understanding this policy from a lot of different perspectives. I don’t think that there’s a wrong perspective or right perspective, but what I see is that there’s so many people who are fighting over things that they actually agree on.”
Niou has made accessibility central to her campaign, hiring neurodiverse people on her staff and making her materials and campaign sites accessible to people from various backgrounds and with various abilities. Her team has professional sign language interpreters working on all fund-raising Zooms, and engages disabled volunteers to participate in the campaign.
For many Autistic women, like myself, Niou’s candidacy is a glass ceiling we weren’t expecting to shatter. Misconceptions about how autism presents, alongside unrelenting stereotypes and ableism, have led to a lack of diagnosis for women and nonbinary people—and a lack of representation in the public sphere as a result. It wasn’t until Leah Carroll published a profile about Niou’s incredible advocacy as an assemblyperson for Manhattan’s Chinatown in Refinery29, in which she described Niou’s Autistic behaviors, that she realized how much her candidacy as an Autistic congresswoman resonated with constituents. “I think that was the first time that I got that many emails, texts, responses asking a lot of questions about what I had gone through or what my diagnosis was,” Niou says. “I didn’t realize people needed to hear [it from me], to see my face, to see representation in that way,” she says, explaining that she herself needed that kind of representation and recognized the lack, “but I didn’t realize that I would be that person for so many people.”
And that kind of representation is crucial for young Autistic kids, who don’t realize what’s possible in the world until they see people like themselves in the public eye. Niou admitted that until she was in fifth grade and met former Texas governor Ann Richards, she wasn’t aware “women could be elected officials”—and that “shattered the minute I met her,” Niou says. She had a similar realization about Asian-American lawmakers when she learned about Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos and the first Chinese-American governor, Gary Locke, both from Washington.
In order to have a larger neurodivergent population in Congress and statehouses, Niou said that we need to make Autistic candidates feel comfortable being openly neurodivergent. Having a lawmaker in Washington paving the way can certainly help. “It breaks barriers. It breaks stereotypes. It breaks stigma,” she says. Niou is currently joined by only a few other Autistic state representatives, like Jessica Bentham of Pennsylvania. “And now I realize that it would have meant a lot to me as a kid to see someone like me doing what I’m doing.” We need these voices “advocating for policies that make people with autism and everybody’s lives actually better because accessibility for everyone really means everyone.”
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