We Put the “Able” in “Disabled”: Local Politician, Yuh-Line Niou, on Autism Spectrum Disorder

By Rory Mondshein

Local politician, Yuh-Line Niou, opens up about politics, disabilities, stigma, and success for our first installment of “We Put the ‘Able’ in ‘Disabled'”

Local politician, Yuh-Line Niou, opens up about politics, disabilities, stigma, and success for our second installment of “We Put the ‘Able’ in ‘Disabled’”

In popular culture, we have seen many story lines about autism.

In Season 15 of South Park, Stan is erroneously diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which doctors attributed to a vaccine he received the year before. Worried about her son’s diagnosis, Stan’s mother brings him to the Asperger’s Research Center, which is actually a secret headquarters disguised as a psychological center.

At some point in the episode, another character, Cartman, discovers Asperger’s Syndrome (or, as he pronounces it, “ASS BURGERS!”), which he believes is characterized by burger-filled underpants. In a pathetic attempt to get diagnosed, Cartman stuffs his underpants with burgers, which he later sells on the market.

Sadly, South Park’s episode incorporated many stereotypes and misconceptions in order to further the plot.

In this episode, Stan is suddenly diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, despite maintaining mostly positive relationships throughout the series. In fact, he is only sent to the doctor after he exhibits many symptoms of depression after his parent’s divorce.

While studies show that there is a correlation between Autism, depression, and anxiety, sadness is not a prerequisite for a diagnosis.

Although Autism refers to a broad range of neurodevelopmental disorders that affects everyone differently, Autism impacts three key areas of development:  socialization, communication, and behavior. Studies show that Autism can manifest itself in early as a child’s first year, and is characterized by repeated instances of social isolation, resplendence in a given field, and an inability to understand social cues.

The perfunctory social isolation and stigma around Autism can lead to depression; however, as previously mentioned, sadness can stem from many different issues that are not necessarily related to Autism.

In addition to the incorrect diagnosis, the episode satirizes the vaccine debate by attributing Stan’s sudden onset Asperger’s Syndrome to a flu vaccine, which actually reflects one of the many misconceptions and does more harm than good.

Some argue that Autism Spectrum Disorder is actually caused by vaccines; however, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that there is a correlation between the two. In fact, the 1998 study that first suggested a relationship between vaccines and Autism has been retracted, and yet many parents erroneously cite it as a source to justify their negative opinions towards mandatory vaccinations.

There is very little knowledge about the emergence of Autism: some studies suggest that children with older parents are more susceptible to an Autism diagnosis, and others highlight a correlation between certain genetic/chromosomal diseases and Autism.

The episode, which ends with the parents making up and Stan’s diagnosis being thrown out the window, does not accurately depict Autism, nor change the conversation around it. If anything, the rising popularity of “Ass Burgers Syndrome” as a Google search may or may not be attributed to South Park’s representation.

Yet, South Park is not the only show that has taken on the serious topic of autism: Parenthood, House, the Big Bang Theory, and many other shows have recently incorporated autism into their storylines.

In Season 2 of Girl Meets World, one of the main characters, Farkle Minkus, is believed to have Asperger’s Syndrome. Although he is resplendent for his age, school counselors believe that his specialized interests, exceptional intellect, and quirks are indicative of a larger issue. Throughout the episode, the supporting characters, Cory Matthews emphasize the ways that Asperger’s Syndrome is indicative of sui generis, and explain the ways that aptitude tests and medical diagnoses are only one small part of one’s character.

Unlike other shows, the Girl Meets World producers and the Disney Channel hired three experts to advise the writers, and ensure they properly represented Autism.

Unfortunately, while the Disney Channel did an excellent job of representing Autism, many shows, like South Park and Community, appeal to their audiences by incorporating many different stereotypes and misconceptions. Although these shows may have good intentions, the perfunctory pandering in the media profoundly affects the way that the public perceives Autism, and the way that Autistic individuals are treated.

As a result, some condemn popular media’s depiction of Autism, and advocate for accurate representation — in fact, there are even blogs dedicated to this issue.

So, what is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism Spectrum Disorder is an overarching term to describe a range of neurodevelopmental disorders, including but not limited to Asperger’s Syndrome, Pervasive Development Disorder, and Rett Syndrome.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is quite broad, and it affects individuals’ socialization, communication, and behavior. The degree to which Autism impairs individuals is diagnosed on a spectrum.

In the United States, 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and It is estimated that 1 to 2 percent of the global population suffers from some form of Autism. Studies show that it is more commonly found in men than in women: 1 in 189 girls are diagnosed with Autism compared to the 1 in 42 boys that receive the diagnosis.

Around the world, we are starting to see a rise in Autism Spectrum diagnoses, but, unfortunately, we do not know if these results can be attributed to more cases, or a greater global recognition.

However, here is what we do know: 63 percent of children (ages 6 to 15)  that are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder are bullied in school; the bullying has been shown to trigger meltdowns. The most high-functioning autistic children are more susceptible to bullying because their peers marginalize them for their relatively socially awkward behaviors, and their functionality makes their disability less obvious.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information estimates that Autism Spectrum Disorder costs between 11.8 billion and 60.9 billion dollars in cognitive behavioral therapy, individualized education programs, and, in some cases, medicine. They also estimate that children with ASD pay over 4 times the amount that neutro-typical people pay for medical expenditures.

Yet, there are a lot of misconceptions about Autism Spectrum Disorder, which inhibits our ability to provide proper treatment.

In addition to the vaccine debate, any claim that autistic individuals are less intelligent than their neurotypical counterparts are simply false, as some studies show a correlation between autism and prodigiousness.  The term, autism, is quite broad, as it encompasses many smaller neurodevelopmental disorders. The narrative mostly focuses on the negative end of the spectrum, and, by extension, ignores the many high-functioning autistic people that are contributing to society.

Unfortunately, many ignore the statistical evidence, and frame the narrative in a mostly negative light.  As a result of the stigma and the many misconceptions, individuals with autism report higher levels of depression and anxiety because they feel misunderstood and trapped.

Well, we want to change the conversation to focus on autism success stories. For these reasons, we have invited local politician, Yuh-Line Niou, to talk about the ways that her autism has helped her build a strong political career.

Tell us about yourself 

My name is Yuh-Line Niou and I come from an immigrant background.  My parents came to the United States seeking educational opportunities and their American Dream.  I was only six months old when they immigrated here with just a few suitcases and my father’s scholarship to the University of Idaho.  Yes, Moscow, Idaho was the first place we moved to, and it was followed by Beaverton, Oregon, El Paso, Texas, and Vancouver, Washington.  I have two siblings, both younger and born in the United States.  We moved a lot and my parents made a lot of sacrifices and decisions in order to provide more opportunities for us.  

I went to The Evergreen State College for my bachelors, and at that time, I took on an internship in the Washington State Legislature.  It was there that I really learned how government worked and found my passion for policy and advocacy work.  I went on to become staff for the Senate Democratic Whip, Senator Regala, whom I interned for, then the primary staffer of the House Healthcare Chair, Representative Eileen Cody.  

I was so blessed to have amazing mentors during this time.  Uncle Bob Santos, Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos, Auntie Vera, Auntie Ruth, Tony Lee and so many other community leaders.  I met my friends Tatsuo Nakata, Hyeok Kim, Livia Lam, and Eileen Aparis.  I was able to see community organizing and advocacy work at its best.  

Eileen saw my passion for advocacy especially for working families and recommended me for a position as the lobbyist for a non-profit organization called the Statewide Poverty Action Network.  There, I focused on anti-poverty legislation such as bills to regulate the payday lending industry, stop redlining in the insurance industry, and restore voter rights.

I moved to New York to do my Master’s Degree as a National Urban Fellow, where I was placed at the US EPA’S Office of International and Tribal Affairs as a Special Assistant to the Assistant Administrator, Michelle DePass.  While at the National Urban Fellows, I met another alumni of the program, Ron Kim, who was thinking of running for State Assembly.  

I became Ron’s Chief of Staff and worked for him up until recently, when I decided to run for office in the 65th Assembly District.

What is your position?

I am a candidate for the 65th Assembly District seat in New York.

What does that entail?

A lot of campaign work currently!  

What inspired you to run for office?

I saw the need for representation in my district.  The former Speaker of the Assembly represented this district, and I knew that we would be experiencing a very large shift in the district because whoever came in would be a freshman.  I wanted to make sure that our district had somebody with the experience and the ability to provide solid constituent services and inclusive representation for our very diverse constituency.

Tell me about your disability

I am on the Autism spectrum.

When were you diagnosed?

I was diagnosed as an adult at the age of 22.

How does that affect you?

Because I was diagnosed as an adult, throughout my childhood I had a lot of moments where I wondered why certain things were so difficult for me that others found simple and vice versa.  

How do you treat it?

I was given some tools and exercises that help me to sort through emotions that I sometimes have a hard time expressing.  I think I have come up with my own way to interact with people, and some of the very basic things that I have a hard time with, I just am more open to asking others for help.

Why did you decide to open up about it?

I never really thought my story was very interesting since I guess I live it, and because I am very high functioning, I often have the privilege to not be faced with the kinds of discrimination or stigma that others with visible disabilities face.  I think it wasn’t until some parents with Autism Speaks came to Ron’s office for a meeting with us, that I talked about my diagnosis in public.

How did people react?

The parents from Autism Speaks found my experience hopeful and helpful and they were excited that someone who could understand a fraction of what their own kids were going through was able to speak up for them.  I think most people are surprised to hear that I am on the spectrum.  I think that it is inspiring for many people to know that what some folks say is a disability actually can sometimes be an asset on a high level.  

What was the best reaction you got? 

My fiancée and I have known each other since we were ten.  He has ADHD and talked a mile a minute and was always “disrupting the class” while I rarely talked.  We were always seated next to each other because teachers would never know what to do with us and they figured if they put him next to me, he would have nobody to talk to.  When we met up again about 15 years later, we both have grown into ourselves and really learned how to use our “disabilities” to the best of our abilities.  We fell in love with each other because we saw how we were both able to make the world see what we could do rather than let the world tell us what we couldn’t do.

How did that make you feel?

Pretty great!

What was the worst reaction you got?

There are always little hurts here and there.  I think the worst are moments when things I say get taken the wrong way.  I think I miss particular stressors in my voice or if I present something and to me it isn’t emotionally attached, but to others it is, and it gets misconstrued.  I can see when it happens after the fact, but I can’t stop it from happening beforehand.  

How did that make you feel?

I hate when I make these mistakes but I suppose it is inevitable for anyone really.  I just know now why I can’t understand or see it as much.  I have gotten a lot more adept at seeing when it has happened though and always appreciate when my friends are willing to tell me when it does!

If you could turn back time, would you open up about it?

I have become more and more willing to talk about it, I was diagnosed as an adult and being on the spectrum was not even anything I had thought about until then.  I think when I was younger, I had no idea what was happening around me and didn’t understand why people couldn’t understand what I was trying to say at times.  I think even if I tried, I wouldn’t have known how!  Regardless of any labels or level of skill, it always takes time to learn how to communicate.

What do you think the biggest misconception about your disability is?

I think the biggest misconception about being on the spectrum is that we don’t have feelings.  I think we may not react right away, or it takes us more time to process things, but we definitely have feelings!  We actually have so many that it is hard to understand things right away!

What do you wish people would know about your disability?

I guess maybe this is not just about my disability, but about people in general…that we all have different strengths and skill sets…that just because something might be easy to one person, it might be hard for another.

What is the worst thing about your disability? Why?

The worst thing about my disability is probably that sometimes I unintentionally hurt people because I misread how they are feeling.  I tend to say things in a matter of fact way and in a very straightforward way without always gauging completely how it might be taken.

What is the best thing about your disability?

The best thing about my disability is how it makes me have keen observation and I can break things down into cause and effect in a way that many people can’t.  I pick up patterns that others can’t see because I have to.  It is all really two sides to the same coin.

Why?

I think out of necessity, of learning slowly how to interact with others, I have learned that I can’t pick up all cues, so I look for specific patterns in how we react to one another, and it made me more able to break down what others might call intuition.  I think it is a little bit of a maybe mathematical superpower!  

To what extent does your disability affect your daily life? How?

I know there are probably many ways that it does, in actuality, but I can’t think of how I would be the same person without it!

How does your disability affect your political stances?

I think it makes me much more thoughtful about making sure accessible government truly means accessible.  I care about how elected officials feel about and understand disability issues.  I also think it is incredibly important that many different perspectives are at the table when discussing issues that affect our daily lives.

What are your hopes and dreams? Are they the same as when you were little?

My hope is to help others get their voices heard.  When I was younger, I often felt like government and laws and policies just kind of happened to me.  It wasn’t something I felt like I could touch or change or have any impact on.  I think a lot of people feel that way about government.  My opinion changed when I did my internship at the legislature while I was in college.  I realized that the legislature, the government, was actually accessible if you just knew how to navigate it.  I watched as different groups worked the hallways and talked to their legislators.  I figured out how to make policy changes and how to actually have a voice.  I wanted to make sure that everyone could have the same kind of access.  When I became the lobbyist for the Statewide Poverty Action Network, I realized that the goal for that job…was to become obsolete.  I wanted to make it so I was no longer needed.  That people wouldn’t need others to advocate for them…that I wanted to help others advocate for themselves.  So that is my biggest dream.

Who inspires you and why?

My mom inspires me, my dad inspires me, my grandmother inspires me, and I have so many amazing mentors that inspire me.  Michelle DePass, Sharon Tomiko Santos, Uncle Bob Santos, Tony Lee, Eileen Cody, Bob Catell, Hyeok Kim, Scott Stringer, Ron Kim, Lisa Fisch, Wing Yew Lum, Eileen Aparis, Livia Lam…(I know they all have fancy titles, but none of them really care, so I’m just listing them by name.)  Basically, they are what I hope to someday be like.  They take time for me and they are always there when I need them.  Sharon, for example, was one of the first Asian women to ever be elected to state office.  In any state.  She was also one of the youngest elected officials at the time.  And one of the first to ever be in leadership.  She loves me so much, that even in her busiest times, when she heard I was applying for jobs, she took almost 10 hours of her day just to help me write and re-write and re-write and re-write my resume and cover letter until she felt it was perfect, then she went to her closet and gave me over five outfits to wear to the interviews and beyond.  Every one of these people that I listed has an infinite number of stories like that that I could tell.  They all want to build a pipeline of leadership and mentorship and I am humbled every time I think about all the opportunities they have provided me and others like me.  I want to do the same for others.

There are also folks who have really paved the way, broke barriers, and made change that I look up to and admire that I have had the amazing opportunity to meet and learn from…on top of the folks that I listed, I am obviously inspired by Gary Locke, Grace Meng, John Liu, Mike Honda, Judy Chu, Ann Richards, and Mohammad Yunus and extremely blessed that I was/am able to learn from them.

What do you want to see for the world and why?

I want to see a world that is willing to allow everyone to participate and have a voice.  I think that is how we make the whole world better.

What do you think needs to be done to reduce the stigma?

I think that all stigma is from fear.  I think people fear the unknown and things they don’t understand.  I think one of the best ways to reduce stigma is to help people understand different perspectives by telling our stories.

How can we change the conversation?

I think your blog is already helping with that!  I’m here to tell my story and let people know that I’m not afraid or ashamed to be open about who I am and what I struggle with day to day.  I hope that people when they meet me, they see me for who I am and that being on the spectrum does not actually hinder me, but helps me in the most awesome policy wonkish way!  I hope that they will tell their stories too.

Thank you so much for interviewing with us.

Our Chief Community Officer, Rory Mondshein, with Yuh-Line Niou after the Special Election on April 19th.

Our Chief Community Officer, Rory Mondshein, with Yuh-Line Niou after the Special Election on April 19th.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of the “We Put the ‘Able’ in ‘Disabled’” series, which will feature scintillating interviews with politicians, CEOs, professors, and other successful people that struggle with invisible illnesses in order to change the conversation about health care and disability rights.

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