[Democratic Pennsylvania State Rep. Jessica Benham] recently found herself in the somewhat surprising position of pushing back against an emerging line of attack against DeSantis, something that’s been trotted out by supporters of Donald Trump: The attempt to draw attention to DeSantis’ awkward public presence by claiming that the GOP presidential hopeful is “a little bit on the spectrum,” as Trump hatchet man Steve Bannon first put it last week.
It’s not that Benham thinks such a diagnosis would be disqualifying. Rather, she’s troubled by the act of armchair diagnosis as a way of knocking someone. The implication is that the status of being on the spectrum is problematic or shameful or bad — and, at any rate, something intentionally kept secret.
“It’s frankly none of our business until he tells us one way or the other,” she tells me. “But if you want to delegitimize someone as a politician, certainly leaning into those stereotypes that people have about autistic folks is one way to do it. And that’s what’s happening here.”
No kidding. In short order, Bannon’s comment, which used the pseudo-diagnosis to explain DeSantis’ disastrous Twitter campaign rollout alongside Elon Musk, was echoed across the MAGA ecosystem. “Ron DeSantis is 100% on the spectrum,” tweeted the pro-Trump activist Laura Loomer. “Can we finally talk about this?” Grace Chong, the CFO of Bannon’s War Room podcast, called him “DeSpectrum” in one tweet, and in another one contrasted him unfavorably with the former president: “Trump does it BIGGER, BETTER, and with HEART. Unlike that guy on the spectrum.”
“God give me strength,” says Eric Garcia, Washington correspondent for the Independent and author of the 2021 book We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation. “It’s really fucking disgusting what Steve Bannon is doing.” Garcia says his group chat with fellow autistic writers lit up on the Bannon news. The refrain: “Are we really going to have to spend 18 months on this?”
“I’m pretty good at working a room,” says Benham, the Pennsylvania legislator. “Because working a room follows a set of rules and social norms that you can learn. But there are plenty of my colleagues who are not good at that and who are not autistic. … Maybe they’re just introverted.”