Story at a glance

  • Hopeful presidential candidates have been leaning into unique platforms that distinguish them from their competitors.
  • The benefits of increasing neurodiversity in the workplace are gaining more awareness.
  • Democratic candidate Andrew Yang has a personal interest in creating policy around neurodiversity and public access to mental health services because of his son, who is on the autism spectrum.

It’s a stressful time for Democratic candidates competing to run in the 2020 election, who now have only a few days left to qualify for the January debate if they’re to continue their campaign for the presidency. Past debates have focused heavily around the issues of health care and foreign policy, with immigration coming in at third according to a poll by the New York Times. 

Some candidates have chosen to take up distinct platforms, speaking passionately about issues that are personal to them to appeal and relate to voters. LGBTQ+ rights are distinctly important and personal to former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, the first and only openly gay major presidential candidate. He’s spoken numerous times about his husband, Chasten, and how he was worried about coming out at a time when vice president Mike Pence, who has opposed same-sex marriage, was the governor of Indiana.

Similarly personal stories have been told by another Democratic candidate, Andrew Yang. While the waters are still murky as to whether Yang will qualify for the January debate, he’s gained recognition for speaking up about neurodiversity and autism awareness. 

What is neurodiversity?

A term frequently used by the autism community, neurodiversity refers to the individual differences in the structure and function of our brains and nervous systems. Essentially, it emphasizes that differences are normal and there’s not one perfect prototype for our brains, and is thus also embraced by those diagnosed with other conditions, such as dyslexia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Within the scope of the term there are “neurotypicals,” or those with a common neurological makeup, and “neurodivergents” whose makeup might be more complex. 

Due to a lack of understanding of neurodiversity by potential employers, those with neurological disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have typically faced greater than average hurdles to get hired. This is despite the fact that neurodiversity isn’t as uncommon as one might think, with the CDC reporting about 1 in 6 children are diagnosed with neurodevelopmental differences in the U.S. 

Why it’s so important to Andrew Yang

"I have a son with special needs. And to me, special needs is the new normal in this country," Yang said before asking audience members to raise their hands if they knew someone autistic or with special needs during the final presidential debate of 2019. 

Yang’s oldest son Christopher is on the autism spectrum, and when asked by NPR why he's decided to make his son's story part of his campaign he said there wasn't really a choice.

"I would have no idea how not to talk about it, in the sense that it's part of our family and part of our lives," he said. "The last thing that would ever occur to me would be to somehow obscure the reality of Christopher and his autism from our story."

On Yang’s website he adds that “these children have something unique to offer." He’s right. 

A Harvard Business Review article explores neurodiversity as a competitive advantage in STEM fields, explaining that “research shows that some conditions, including autism and dyslexia, can bestow special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics.” 

Neurodiversity can also benefit a company’s ability to innovate and problem-solve, yet many employees with neurodevelopmental differences have encountered less-than-ideal experiences getting hired, being supported at work and growing in their careers.

One unique proposal

Yang’s newest campaign video is titled “Caregivers” and feature his wife, Evelyn, as well as their son Christopher, focusing on Yang’s health care plan and his universal basic income proposal. The proposal would give each American mental health coverage and $1,000 a month, the most ambitious proposed expansion of Social Security by any of the Democrats running for the party’s presidential nomination.

Whether Yang ends up making it all the way to the presidential primaries is yet to be seen, but the work he’s already done for the visibility of neurodiversity can be seen as an accomplishment in and of itself. 

Published on Jan 08, 2020