Eric Garcia ’14, Distinguished Young Alumnus Award Citation

Autism defines how Eric Garcia ’14 lives, not who he is. He grew up hearing society’s message that, as an autistic person, he had an illness to be cured. Yet Garcia understood autism to be akin to being deaf or gay — an integral part of his identity, but not the only part.

His book, We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation, gives people who are well-intentioned and want to understand autism — parents, doctors, co-workers — a different frame for understanding the condition. As Garcia wrote in his book, published in 2021, people on the autism spectrum must “navigate a world where all the road signs are written in another language.” For his insights, the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network recognized Garcia with the Harriet McBryde Johnson Prize for Nonfiction Writing.

Garcia views autism as a civil rights issue rather than a medical one. In his thoroughly reported book, he busts myths, such as the idea that childhood vaccinations cause autism. He challenges the notion that a disability takes something away from a person and somehow lessens the meaning or value of that individual’s life. He shows that autistic people are not just white men working in Silicon Valley but populate every demographic. He lets autistic people tell their own stories about relationships, race, gender identity, work and education, rather than have neuro-typical people speak for them.

A California native, Garcia wanted to be a political journalist ever since working on his high school newspaper. He made the honors program at the community college he attended outside of Los Angeles and was picked for a White House internship during the Obama administration. UNC offered him a scholarship, and as he’d never lived in a swing state and was up for adventure, he accepted.

At a big university, thousands of miles from home, Garcia struggled to find his footing. A study in Denmark found that autistic people were three times more likely to attempt suicide than the population at large, and suicidal ideation is a serious problem among autistic college students. Though the Americans with Disabilities Act, which expanded the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1990 to include autism, made help available, Garcia was reluctant to seek it. After he turned in a blank answer sheet for an exam in one of his favorite courses — “Southern Politics, Critical Writing and Thinking” — he admitted to the professor he was autistic. The professor helped him access services.

A counselor suggested Garcia strengthen his social ties by becoming part of a club or other campus group. He joined the staff of The Daily Tar Heel. As a reporter on the state and national desk, he was the first to volunteer to pick up a story, said one of his former editors, and his tenacity showed in his work. Once, he called his editor on his way back from covering a charity event attended by Roy Cooper ’79 (’82 JD), then the attorney general. The editor asked whether Cooper had mentioned plans to run for governor. “Hold on,” Garcia said and took off after Cooper, chasing him down and getting a good quote to add to the story.

Garcia has flourished in his journalism career. He moved to Washington, D.C., shortly after graduation, first as a reporter at MarketWatch, then as a staff correspondent at the weekly magazine National Journal and a staff writer for Roll Call, a newspaper covering Congress. The Hill hired him as an associate editor, then he became an assistant editor at The Washington Post.

Currently, Garcia juggles roles as senior Washington correspondent and Washington bureau chief for the British newspaper The Independent, and as a columnist for MSNBC, covering politics and disability policy.

For the past several years, Garcia has taught at a summer journalism program for high school students, held at Princeton University. A charismatic speaker, thoughtful and intense, he is a favorite among the students as he mentors them and shows them how to succeed.
Since his book was published, parents have reached out to him saying it helped them understand their child, and autistic people have said the book makes them feel less alone. Garcia makes time to respond. He has a reputation as a kind, decent and thoughtful person, say those who know him.

One of his former editors considers Garcia’s success “a victory for the good guys. He’s a good person who’s worked hard, faced a lot of obstacles to success, and he made it happen for himself. And he’s so kind and thoughtful to others along the way.”

Garcia finds something he can relate to with everyone he meets. He’s the kind of friend who always shows up, and he believes in paying it forward, according to colleagues. He continues to help The DTH and its student reporters succeed.

Building on the success of We’re Not Broken, Garcia has begun a second book, this one on disabilities.

“People think you write a book and you’re an expert,” he said, “but I’m still learning and trying to understand.”


The Distinguished Young Alumnus Award is presented by the Carolina Alumni Board of Directors.

Share via: