Respect Accessibility

Candidate seeks to become the first openly autistic member of Congress

Greg Nash

Story at a glance

  • Joshua Collins is running to succeed Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.)
  • Collins cites teen climate activist Greta Thunberg as inspiration.
  • Collins, a self-identified socialist, says on his campaign site that his experience as a
    trucker and navigating a complex, insufficient safety net shaped his views.

A Washington state candidate running to succeed retiring Rep. Denny Heck revealed he is autistic Wednesday, citing teen climate activist Greta Thunberg as inspiration.

“I’ve spent a long time thinking about whether I would talk publicly about this. I’m running for Congress & I know people will judge me for it,” Joshua Collins tweeted Wednesday. “But I’ve seen how much @GretaThunberg has helped the conversation around it & I’ve decided to be open about it too. I’m autistic.”

Collins, a 26-year-old truck driver, is currently the only declared Democratic candidate in the race for the state’s 10th District. The Democratic primary is set for Aug. 4, 2020.

Collins, a self-identified socialist, says on his campaign site that his experience as a trucker and navigating a complex, insufficient safety net shaped his views.

“[A] decade in the workforce has made the truth clear: our lives are made difficult on purpose. This system has been created and maintained by the people who own basically everything to protect their power,” he writes. “If we’re well-paid, secure in our housing, and educated, we demand a far bigger share.”

Although speculation abounds that historical statespeople who predate the modern understanding of autism, such as Thomas Jefferson, may have been on the spectrum, Collins would be the first openly autistic member of Congress.

Haley Moss, the first openly autistic woman admitted to the Florida bar, told Changing America that public figures such as Collins and Thunberg have the potential to create a snowball effect when it comes to disabled people participating in public life.

“I think the emergence of prominent, openly autistic people sets the tone for many others on the autism spectrum and within the disability community. It breaks down barriers, stereotypes, and shows how much we truly are capable of,” Moss told Changing America.

“It gives the next generation of autistic young people positive role models, and emphasizes the importance of self-advocacy. Openly autistic leaders empower self-advocates and also give parents and educators tools to build the self-esteem of autistic young people,” she added.

Zoe Gross, Director of Operations at the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), said it’s vital for more autistic people to have a hand in shaping policies that affect them as a community.

“While ASAN does not take positions on individual candidates, it is exciting to see multiple openly autistic people running for office this election season,” Gross told Changing America.

“Every day, state, local and federal legislatures shape policy that affects autistic people and those with other developmental disabilities. That means it’s critical for autistic people be engaged in public policy at every level of government,” she added.

John Marble, the founder of Pivot Neurodiversity, a firm that works to help companies support autistic employees, said the increased visibility of autistic people demonstrated the diversity of experience and talent within the community.

“Not every autistic person is going to be a global leader like Greta Thunberg, or an award-winning artist like [actor] Anthony Hopkins or [comedian] Hannah Gadsby, or an athlete like John Howard or Armani Williams, or a novelist like Helen Hoang,” Marble, who has also worked as an aide to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Sen. John Kerry and former Vice President Al Gore, told Changing America.

“Some may lead our world and some may live lives which require constant care or significant support. All of those experiences are valid and when autistic adults are open who they are, that begins to help society better respect all autistic people, no matter who they are.”

Marble, who is also openly gay, likened the ongoing progress to that of LGBTQ people in public life.

“When I began my political career, there were few openly gay public figures. It was hard for me to imagine living my political life as an openly gay man. Yet, when I saw openly gay public figures like former Congressman Barney Frank, it inspired me to be open about who I was to my colleagues, family, and friends,” he said.

Nor is Collins the only autistic candidate running for office this cycle. Jessica Benham, a Pittsburgh-area graduate student and activist, announced earlier this year that she will challenge Pennsylvania State Rep. Harry Readshaw, who has represented the state’s 36th District for 25 years, in the upcoming Democratic primary. If elected, she would be the first openly autistic woman elected to a state legislature.

“Disabled people make up approximately 20 percent of the population in the United States, but emerging research confirms what we’ve known on the ground — we don’t have equitable representation in government,” Benham told The Hill in October. “I want to use my perspective to ensure that disabled people have the same access and opportunities as everyone else in our district.”

Thunberg herself has frequently spoken of her autism diagnosis and how it has increased her focus and dedication to activism.

“I have Asperger’s, I’m on the autism spectrum, so I don’t really care about social codes that way,” she told “CBS This Morning” in September. Being autistic, she told the program, “makes you different and makes you think differently.”

“Especially in a big crisis like this one, we need to think outside the box, we need to think outside our current system, we need people who think outside the box and who aren’t like everyone else,” she added.