For his new book, "We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation,” Eric Garcia spent a lot of time talking to other autistic people. And in the interviews and conversations he had, the UNC alumnus saw many of his own traits.
Garcia, who is autistic, said the interviews helped him realize he was part of a larger community.
He said some of the interviewees stimmed, using stim toys and fidget cubes. Stimming, which varies among people, is a self-stimulating, repetitive behavior that might present itself as flapping hands or rocking back and forth and, among other reasons, can be for enjoyment or a way to reduce anxiety.
“And I realized, that was like, 'Oh, that's an autistic thing,' you know?” Garcia said. “And I was like, ‘Okay, this doesn't make me bad. This just — this makes me autistic,’ and it made sense. And it made everything feel better.”
Garcia, a 2014 UNC graduate, a senior Washington correspondent at The Independent and a columnist for MSNBC, published "We're Not Broken" on Aug. 3.
The research around autism that Garcia did for his book caused him to unlearn these experiences and to accept himself, he said. It allowed him to be kinder to himself.
“You're part of a larger neurotype of people and you realize you're not defective," Garcia said. "You realize that you're okay. And then when you realize that the reason why you're seen as 'bad' is that we've been conditioned to think that neurotypical is 'normal and good.' And conversely, we've been conditioned to say that autism or any type of neurodivergence is negative or a malady."
Reframing the conversation around autism
Autism spectrum disorder refers to a group of developmental conditions that can affect communication and behavior, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. ASD varies in its symptoms and severity in different people.
Garcia's book focuses on reframing the conversation around autism, discouraging the mindset that autism needs a “cure,” and instead, focusing on how policies and structures can help autistic people lead more fulfilling lives.
Through interviews, scientific research and personal experience, Garcia writes about everything from workplaces to U.S. policy and how they affect the autistic community — dispelling misconceptions along the way.
He noted the disparities in autism diagnoses that exist for women and people of color. A 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that racial and ethnic disparities in diagnoses still exist, but may be narrowing. The report states that white children are 1.1 times more likely to be identified with ASD than Black children and 1.2 times more likely than Hispanic children.
While working on the book, Garcia also said he didn't expect to write as much as he did about autistic people who identify as part of the LBGTQ community.
Garcia said he changed his mind about what he wrote about along the way, instead of sticking entirely to the "hunches" that he came into the process with.
"You can change the narrative and I think that makes it better," he said.
Although people expected Garcia’s book to be a memoir, he never wanted it to be one, he said.
“I wanted it to be a book about what it's like to be autistic in America,” Garcia said. “And I feel that as a journalist, I couldn't just write about my own experiences. As an autistic person, and as a journalist, I had to insert myself into the larger narrative about autism rather than just making it about me.”
Garcia said that the common image of an autistic person is a white adolescent boy in the suburbs, and he wanted to show that autistic people can look different.
If a teacher, social worker, clinician or parent thinks autism only affects white people, Garcia said, they can prevent autistic people of color from getting accommodations in schools. It can prevent them from being able to live a good life as an autistic person, he said.
Tori Ekstrand, associate professor in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media and Caroline H. and Thomas S. Royster distinguished professor for graduate education, said that Garcia’s book is terrific.
She said his work has helped open up the conversation around autistic people.
“It's sparked so many conversations online in the disability community … So he's part of your growing nucleus of journalists who have interests in covering disability," Ekstrand said.
'It's possible to live a good autistic life'
On Wednesday, Garcia will be speaking about his book at UNC Libraries’ virtual event series "Well Read," where well-known authors and Tar Heel alumni discuss their work.
Blue Dean, the executive director of library development, said the event series began in 2020 to connect library supporters and community members to the authors who participate in it.
She said Garcia was a perfect fit for the series.
“He's a Carolina alum, and he's a journalist," Dean said. "And he's well regarded, and this is a topic of interest to many in our community and beyond.”
Hussman School Dean Emeritus Susan King suggested to Elaine Westbrooks, vice provost for UNC Libraries and university librarian, that Garcia would be a good fit for the event series.
King said Garcia is a good writer and an even better journalist — he asks tough questions and goes where the story leads him, she said.
“And the other piece is he wants people to understand autism, which is much more prevalent in our society now than it was when I was an early reporter,” King said. “And I think he has the capacity and the talent to be able to really engage the public in understanding autism.”
Garcia said that it is an honor to return to UNC and speak to students because he used to be one of them.
“I hope that through reading this book, that (autistic people at UNC) see that it's possible to live a good autistic life," he said.
Garcia's "Well Read" discussion will be held virtually from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Attendees can register online.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the pronouns of Blue Dean, the executive director of library development. The article has been updated to reflect Dean's pronouns. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.
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