As we see the demographics among lawmakers start to change to better match the demographics throughout the country, one group that hasn’t had a lot of representation is people with autism. A recently-elected member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives hopes that changes soon and plans to do her best to be a voice for the autistic community.
Jessica Benham, 29, won Pennsylvania’s 36th District seat during November’s general election and was sworn in earlier this month. That made some history, as Benham is one of the first openly autistic people to be elected as a lawmaker in the United States. She was diagnosed as a young adult.
Benham told TODAY, “People have reached out, telling me that I have inspired them and they see themselves in me — that is such an honor. I didn’t run to be the first of anything … I ran to fight for my community. I am excited that I might inspire a whole generation of autistic people to step up.”
Benham, who is also one of the first openly LGBTQ women to serve as a politician, says she knows her win is important for those who have similar stories to hers. She hopes to be able to give such marginalized groups a say in the public discourse, which doesn’t always happen.
She also wants to dispel certain ideas people have about those with autism and open up more opportunities as a result.
She explains, “I hope that I can play a part in fighting for a world where we don’t have to hide who we are to be seen as capable of serving our communities.”
Benham says she will work to address problems facing the autistic community and try to empower them to work together for justice.
Like many women, Benham was diagnosed with autism as an adult, when she was in college. She said she always knew she was different, but the diagnosis made a lot of sense and helped her understand things a bit better. That included difficulties in school, when she frequently heard she was “a bad kid.”
She says, “If you would ask my second-grade teacher if I would ever be here, she would laugh. I did not understand social norms. Those things don’t come naturally to autistic people who do not understand those unwritten rules and don’t know how to read between the lines.”
After she finished school, she co-founded the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, which is billed as a grassroots self-advocacy project run by autistic people for autistic people. Their goals are to build the autistic community, educate service providers, empower autistic leaders, and advocate for inclusive policy.
She hopes lawmaking bodies around the country will also be more inclusive of diverse people, like those with autism, in the future, explaining, “The halls of power in Harrisburg were not built for people like me, nor for everyday Pennsylvanians like my constituents.”
She thinks that if statehouses across the country begin to reflect the different types of people in the country, things will begin to work better for everyone.Whizzco