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How Andrew Yang's Personal Experience With Autism Is Shaping His Policy Proposals


Democratic presidential contender Andrew Yang talks openly and frequently about his son Christopher, who's on the autism spectrum. Here's Yang during the most recent Democratic debate.


ANDREW YANG: I have a son with special needs. And to me, special needs is the new normal in this country. How many of you all have a family member or friend or neighbor with special needs or autism?


YANG: If you look around, most hands went up.

KELLY: NPR's Juana Summers reports on how Yang's personal experience is shaping his policy proposals.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Dozens of people crowded into a coffee shop in Salem, N.H., to hear about Andrew Yang's plans for disabled people. He told the group what it was like when his son Christopher, who was 3 at the time, received his autism diagnosis.


YANG: So we were first-time parents, and Christopher had struggles. But as a first-time parent, you don't know if that's just the norm. You're like, maybe 2-year-olds act like this; maybe 3-year-olds act like this. And when we got the diagnosis, it was actually a relief for me and my wife because we were like, OK, this is something that we now understand and we can bring resources to bear.

SUMMERS: But Yang said he recognizes that not everyone has those resources. Autism can be a costly and complex diagnosis that can vary widely. In an interview, Yang explained why he's decided to make his son's story part of his campaign.

YANG: Well, 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. And the last thing that would ever occur to me would be to somehow obscure the reality of Christopher and his autism from our story.

SUMMERS: Yang's wife, Evelyn, stays home with their two boys while Yang is on the road. At a recent event focused on autism in Iowa City, Iowa, he called Evelyn the CEO of team Christopher.

Jessie Witherell is one of the co-founders of the Iowa City Autism Community. She said she hadn't heard a candidate talk about autism this way before.

JESSIE WITHERELL: Autism is such a common condition. You know, so many of us know somebody who's on the autism spectrum. But yet we don't have leaders who talk about autism in a positive light.

SUMMERS: She drew a contrast between how Yang and President Trump talk about autism. Recently, Trump has mocked Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist who is on the autism spectrum. This week, Yang rolled out a new plan to fund research and support children with disabilities, as well as their families.

Ari Ne'eman welcomes some parts of Yang's plan, including his commitment to ending seclusion as a punishment in schools and expanded federal aid for disabled students. Ne'eman is a senior research associate at Harvard Law School's Project on Disability, and he's consulted on the plans of several Democrats running for president. But he also had some concerns, particularly the fact that Yang's proposal focuses only on children, rather than also including problems faced by disabled adults. We spoke over Skype.

ARI NE'EMAN: That's a sore spot in the disability community. You know, often, you will see the public very quick to talk about cute disabled children but, when those children grow up, being very reluctant to provide supports and services in order to have a life with dignity and independence.

SUMMERS: He said that Yang's plan has a lot of admirable goals but, so far, not a lot of specifics. One big question is how Yang's signature freedom dividend that would give every American a thousand dollars a month would work with the existing web of disability programs. Advocates are worried that the disabled could lose access to benefits and services unless Yang's plan is finely tuned.

Yang didn't get into specifics on which existing disability programs would stack with the freedom dividend in our interview, and it isn't something the plan his campaign released this week addressed. But Yang says that's not the point.

YANG: Human value and economic value are not the same things, and everyone has intrinsic value. That's one of the core messages of the campaign. We have to make a society that works for all of us, able or non, on the spectrum or no - or not.

SUMMERS: Yang acknowledges that campaigning for president has been hard on his family, but he says the things he and his wife have learned from advocating for their son are part of the reason he's in this race at all.

Juana Summers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.