Joshua Collins Wants to Be the First Openly Autistic Member of Congress

Leslie A. Zukor
Joshua Collins
Joshua Collins

Inspired by Democratic candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 Congressional victory in New York, 26-year-old autistic truck driver, Joshua Collins, knew he had to run for political office. Thus, Collins embarked upon a bold challenge to unseat Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.) in Washington state’s 10th Congressional District, feeling the incumbent was woefully inadequate on issues like climate change.

When Heck announced his retirement in 2019 (along with a campaign for another office), it culminated in a free-for-all for the open seat in the House, with 19 candidates from multiple political parties running. The 10th Congressional District comprises portions of three counties southwest of Seattle. In Washington state, the top two finishers in the Aug. 4 primary, regardless of party, advance to the 2020 general election.

Collins was originally running in the election as a Democrat but is now the pioneer of the left-leaning coalition Essential Workers’ Party. If he wins the election, Collins would be the first known openly autistic Congressmember in United States’ history. The Mighty spoke with Collins about being autistic, the election and his perspective on the future of the country.

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Meet Joshua Collins

Only diagnosed as autistic last year, Collins cannot comprehend how he finished his high school education and completed some undergraduate work without knowing he was on the spectrum. While he came out as autistic early in his Congressional campaign, Collins had to deliberate about how open he would be about his neurodiversity.

“My wife and I have discussed this a lot, and the decision to actually be public about it was based on the fact that we naturally drew a lot of people who were autistic into the campaign,” Collins explained. In addition to Collins, two of his campaign staffers are also autistic.

Furthermore, Collins saw the practical positives that sharing his neurodiversity could provide to other young people on the spectrum who don’t see themselves represented in public office. Inspired by climate justice warrior Greta Thunberg, Collins was invigorated by the potential to transform how the larger American society sees neurodiverse people.

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“[S]eeing the impact she had on the autistic community, and just how positively it impacted the way people view people who are autistic [was] why I made that decision,” Collins said. “That decision would get people to see that if someone is autistic they can do just anything everyone else can do.”

Running for Office as an Autistic Candidate

Like Thunberg and others in the neurodiversity community, Collins sees his autism as a superpower, not a disorder. “One of the more positive ways it impacts me is my narrow focus in life,” he explained, adding:

I spend every waking moment on politics, but I don’t get unhappy doing that. Being able to spend all this time working on something and just being completely obsessed and not in an unhealthy way, but in a way that just makes me able to do more, I think that’s really the benefit that I have from being autistic.

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As an autistic candidate, Collins is acutely aware of the legislative priorities facing the disability community. If elected, he would endeavor to fix the Social Security case backlog, increase federal disability payments, and support efforts like the Disability Integration Act to allow Americans to receive home and community-based services.

“I don’t think people should have to choose between not getting care or having to go into an institution in order to get care,” Collins said. “I think you should be able to get care in your home.”

Ableism on the Campaign Trail

While ableism such as trolls using the “r-word” was something he expected as a Congressional candidate, Collins was surprised by how “cynically” his autism has been weaponized by opponents. Due to being neurodiverse, Collins has a very linear way of thinking and has had to ask for particularly “vague questions that have underlying meanings” to be rephrased.

A prominent Democratic Party official and ardent supporter of an opponent, however, “tried to frame [it] as me being dishonest or me dodging a question, but all I’m asking is for a reframing,” Collins said. He further elucidated, “People try to ascribe character flaws to my asking for even the most basic sort of accommodation.”

There are also other challenges to being an autistic candidate. Collins explained that sexual harassment in politics is rampant, and it’s something to be mindful of, especially for neurodiverse people who are often averse to physical contact.

“In particular, I don’t like being touched,” Collins said. “If you are autistic and you are just a campaign staffer, you have to be aware of that, too, and try to be vocal about protecting your personal space, because there are a lot of creepy people out there.”

The Takeaway

Collins is cognizant of the challenges of running an unprecedented, social media-based campaign when the COVID-19 pandemic has upended elections. He also recognizes the difficulties of being a progressive candidate in a district that is a mix of Democrats and Republicans. Regardless, Collins has an optimistic outlook about the Aug. 4 primary election.

“There is going to be a big surprise come election day for a lot of the people who are paying attention to this election,” he said.

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