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'More visibility is needed': Pennsylvania state rep one of few with autism

Jessica Benham, 29, was recently sworn in as a Pennsylvania state representative. “First and foremost, my goal is to serve my community,” she said.
/ Source: TODAY

Growing up, Jessica Benham never saw people with autism in politics. In fact, she rarely even heard of women having autism. When the 29-year-old disability activist was sworn into the Pennsylvania House of Representatives last week, she became one of only a handful of politicians with autism across the United States and as a bisexual woman, one of a few LGBTQ women in politics.

“I never thought that running for office was going to be what I did. It wasn’t in the Jessica Benham plan,” she told TODAY. “I really felt the call from my community to step up for them."

Jessica Benham says she's a "working-class kid" just like the people she represents in the state legislature. Courtesy Jessica Benham for State Representative

When the incumbent to the Pennsylvania House District 36 announced his retirement, Benham decided to run. During the primary she faced three opponents and then went on to win general election against a Republican candidate. Benham says she’s a “working class kid” that has shared experiences with her constituents in the Pittsburgh district. “I often say we legislate and we lead from our lived experience. In many ways, my lived experience is representative of my district,” she said. “First and foremost, my goal is to serve my community.”

But she also sees this as an opportunity to become a voice for people who often are not heard in political discourse, including people with autism and those in the LGBTQ community.

“I am going to draw attention to the problems that the community is facing,” she said. “People who have been marginalized and excluded, now is the time to say enough is enough. We can all be leaders who fight for justice.”

Benham was diagnosed with autism when she was in college. It’s common for women with autism to not know they have it until they are older. A lot of things fell into place for her.

“I have long understood that I was different,” she said. “An experience a lot of people who are diagnosed later in life share is all of a sudden the world makes sense and there are other people like us. That is a reassuring feeling.”

Jessica Benham "didn't run to be the first of anything," but as an autistic state representative, she is one of only a handful of politicians nationally open about it. Courtesy Jessica Benham for State Representative

Growing up, Benham faced difficulties in school. Her teachers wanted her to be evaluated to see if she had ADHD, but her parents resisted because they feared her being labeled. Often, she heard “Jessica is a bad kid,” which was hard for her to forget.

“If you would ask my second-grade teacher if I would ever be here, she would laugh,” Benham said. “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 college, she co-founded the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, an advocacy program for people with autism run by people with autism. It is also the only LGBTQ autistic-headed group in Pittsburgh and surrounding communities.

“To create an organization that was run by and for autistic people, I am proud of that,” she said.

When she ran for office, she stayed true to herself and people loved it.

“I campaigned as my full authentic self,” she said. “People really responded to that.”

She hopes that in her role she can increase others understanding about what people with autism are like.

“More visibility broadly is needed,” she said. “People will say, ‘Not everyone can be like you,’ … We have to change who we value and who we assign value to. I am not more valuable as a state representative than a kid who needs to communicate with an iPad.”

She sees her role in the state legislature as being similar to her advocacy work.

“I have been fighting my whole life to be heard and to ensure that other marginalized people are heard. I am in a place where people are listening and responding to me,” she said. “I finally have the tools I need to serve my community.”

After her win, Benham received messages from people around the world telling her how much it meant to see a bisexual autistic woman in government.

“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,” she said. “(But) I am excited that I might inspire a whole generation of autistic people to step up.”