Alumna Advocates for Autistic Rights

Two people put trash into bags outdoorsBeing “here, there and everywhere,” can be a cliché. But for University of Pittsburgh alumna Jessica Benham, that’s where she has been for her advocacy and community work, from serving as block captain for Pittsburgh’s East Slopes, to greeting attendees at South Side Park’s Goat Fest, to serving in leadership roles for local public safety councils.

Benham graduated from Pitt with her master’s degree in bioethics from the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences in 2019. Prior to that, she graduated with bachelor’s degrees in political science and communication studies from Bethel University, and received a master’s degree in communication from Minnesota State University.

Benham is currently director of development for the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy (PCAA), a grassroots self-advocacy project run by autistic people for autistic people. After moving back home to Pittsburgh following her studies, she co-founded PCAA, which is the only LGBTQ autistic-led advocacy organization in the Greater Pittsburgh Area.

“We wanted to be an organization that was different from organizations that already existed,” Benham said. “I’m autistic myself. We’re advocating for policies that would be good for people with disabilities and other conditions.”

Benham is an advocate for autistic rights; these include creating sensory-friendly spaces, increasing access to individual education for autistic children in public schools, helping parents, teachers and healthcare professionals better understand autistic people, and reducing barriers to employment for autistic adults.

One of Benham’s successful projects included helping to create a sensory space at the Pittsburgh International Airport. Alongside other advocates, she served on an advisory board that helped brainstorm what the space would include. The area is divided into separate rooms where families can tailor sound and light levels to each traveler, child or adult.

“The idea was that air travel is hard for everyone, but particularly hard for people on the autism spectrum. It can be overwhelming,” she said. “It was exciting to see that vision come to reality. People seem to like this space, from what I’ve been hearing.”

For the bioethics program at Pitt, Benham studied the ethics around how people treat and engage with people with disabilities. She said her studies at Pitt helped her with her advocacy work.

A woman in a blue turtleneck“We see people with disabilities being treated like children instead of being treated like competent adults,” she said.

One of her mentors at Pitt, Lisa Parker, professor and director of the Center for Bioethics and Health Law, said she is “thrilled” to see Benham use her backgrounds in advocacy and bioethics to work in areas where policies are needed to address health disparities and social justice.

“She was very thoughtful and reflective on her own experience and able to broaden that experience to comment more generally on the relevance of bioethics for people with disabilities and, more importantly, the relevance of the perspective of people with disabilities for bioethics,” Parker said. “Bioethics provides a window into examining some of the issues of disabilities studies, health disparities and social justice concerns. From the perspective of autism, decision-making in bioethics involves doing things that can be challenging for people with cognitive differences, like putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to speak on the behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves.”

In the future, Benham wants to help protect workers’ rights, fight for a higher minimum wage, improve access to healthcare and improve the environment. She is currently running for office in Pennsylvania as the Democratic nominee for state representative in House District 36, which covers the area south of downtown Pittsburgh.