It was a routine orientation session for the Bangor School Committee, with a lawyer advising the seven committee members on policies and protocols.
The committee’s newest member, 36-year-old John Hiatt, was full of questions. He asked about transparency, and he asked whether the protocol of communicating with the public exclusively through the committee’s chair conflicted with his position as both a school committee member and the Penobscot County treasurer.
An hour into the Dec. 6 workshop, he apologized for asking so many questions, but he didn’t stop asking them.
Hiatt wound up in a unique position after November’s election, when voters in Bangor elected him to the city’s school committee and Penobscot County voters also made him their county treasurer. But Hiatt’s position is also unique because he has autism.
It is impossible to know for sure how many people on the autism spectrum are serving in public office in the U.S. because no one officially tracks it, but Hiatt appears to be among a small group as an elected official who is open about being on the autism spectrum.
“I really commend him for being in that position,” Cathy Dionne, executive director of the Autism Society of Maine, said. “Just because he has autism doesn’t mean he can’t fulfill that position.”
People with autism “have these underlying talents that we can tap into,” she said.
Though he is high functioning, Hiatt’s autism is serious enough that it counts as a disability and qualifies him for some state support. His persistence and need to ask questions are related to his autism.
He does not always pick up on nuance or subtle social cues, but he said he could tell that some around the table at the school committee orientation were tired of his questions.
“Being on the autism spectrum will make it — has made it — harder already on the school committee,” Hiatt said. “I could sense that they were kind of annoyed at me asking questions.”
He is not getting discouraged, though.
“If you have a disability, you do not have to let that get you down,” Hiatt said. “I know I can do the job. I know I can do it with honor.”
‘If I withdraw, they win’
Hiatt has long had an interest in politics and last year his fellow members on the Maine Republican Party’s State Committee encouraged him to run for Penobscot County treasurer. When he found out that two Bangor School Committee members were not seeking reelection in November, he decided to run for one of those seats, too.
“I ran for county treasurer because I thought it was a natural fit for me, and I ran for school committee because I was also passionate about helping children,” he said.
He knew his autism would make campaigning a challenge, so he was upfront about it when he met voters.
“I mentioned that I was an odd duckling or whatever,” he said.
He explained his platform and his motivation for running, but also had to specify the meaning of his body language.
“To give you a heads up, I have autism, so if I’m not looking at you in the eye, that’s the reason, I said.”
Still, Hiatt said he experienced some insensitivity while campaigning. He remembers giving a speech and starting to stutter and stare at the floor. He looked up to see the audience smirking at him.
“They thought I was a joke,” he said.
Two weeks before the election, he said he was knocking on doors in Bangor when someone answered the door, recognized Hiatt and called him the “special-needs candidate.” He almost quit when he heard that but decided against it.
“I thought, if I withdraw, they win. I’m going to put up a fight,” he said. “I went home, crunched the numbers again, and said ‘John, you have a good chance.’”
He claimed a surprise win in the county treasurer race, defeating incumbent Dan Tremble by 285 votes out of more than 62,000 cast. But he thought he had a shot because he had analyzed voting patterns from the past decade for every town in Penobscot County and noticed many rural towns had grown more Republican.
While he serves on the Maine GOP’s State Committee representing Penobscot County, he said he’s not a typical Republican.
“I did not vote for Donald Trump,” he said. “I’m not a Trump Republican.”
During his campaign, he reached out to Rep. Barbara Cardone, a Democrat who represents much of Bangor’s west side in the Maine House. Cardone, who was running for re-election, was having trouble reaching residents of the Bangor House, the Main Street apartment complex for low-income seniors and people with disabilities where Hiatt lives with his parents.
He made arrangements for Cardone and her opponent, independent Carrie Smith, to spend some time at the complex so they could meet residents. Cardone and Hiatt have since become friends.
“Partisanship for John is an opportunity to work together and see if we can find common ground,” Cardone said. “I’m sure there are certain things that he’s politically conservative on and I’m more liberal, but I suspect we agree on more things than we disagree.”
As county treasurer, Hiatt’s role will be to advise the county’s three commissioners — two Democrats and one Republican — on financial matters. Since Penobscot County has a finance director on staff who handles most budget work and day-to-day finances, the role of treasurer is purely advisory, County Commission Chairman Peter Baldacci said.
When he is sworn in early next month, Hiatt will have access to all of the county’s financial information and will participate in budget discussions, Baldacci said. Hiatt, however, “does not have to vote on actual budget items or decisions, but is to be a source for us to assist in recommendations.”
Hiatt’s communication challenges could become evident in those discussions. At county commissioner and school board meetings he has attended so far, he usually does not join in when everyone else makes jokes, and because of what he calls his “black or white perspective,” he is not comfortable with vague responses or others withholding information.
He is constantly aware of being different from others in public office.
“I feel like I’m in a fish bowl. I’m looking out, and I’m not sure what’s going on,” he said. “I don’t understand people a lot, but I have to learn how to survive with people.”
‘I kind of proved people wrong’
Hiatt takes some pride in having beaten the odds in his life.
He spent much of his childhood moving between foster homes and rehab facilities before he was placed at Kidspeace in Ellsworth, a residential program for young people with autism where he lived until he was 17.
“Had I not been put in a residential facility for people with autism, I would not have had a chance,” he said. “Being away from family was hard. It was a tragic experience, but looking back it was necessary.”
At age 13, he had to relearn how to read and write after a head injury that to this day affects his memory, vision and hearing.
Just before he turned 18, Hiatt was moved to a group home in Bangor. He graduated from Bangor High School in 2003, enrolled at Beal College in 2005 and graduated in 2009 with an associate degree in Executive Legal Secretary Science and a minor in Human Services.
Since then, Hiatt has pursued other professional certifications: He is a certified nursing assistant, and he completed an emergency medical technician training course, even though he does not have his license yet. Since 2016, he has been pursuing an online bachelor’s degree in health care administration from Western Governors University, an online university based in Utah.
“I was told I would never graduate high school. I was told I would never go to college. I was told I’d never hold a job,” he said. “So I kind of proved people wrong all my life.”
Hiatt has worked in recent years in nursing homes around Greater Bangor, as a behavioral health technician for a Brewer social services agency, as a home health worker and more recently as a substitute education technician in public schools in Bangor.
He had to stop working in Bangor schools when he was elected to the school committee, but he is now on the substitute education technician list for All Saints Catholic School in Bangor and Indian Island School.
Multiple times a week, Hiatt goes to Downeast Horizons in Brewer to participate in a day program for adults with autism.
“I never forget where I came from,” he said, when asked why he continues with the program. “There’s still room for improvement.”
The program helps him with cognitive skills and provides socialization opportunities in a comfortable environment. Walking from room to room at Downeast Horizons on Monday, he seemed much more at ease than at a county commission or school board meeting.
He made jokes with staff and other program participants and returned to the room where he started his day, drawing squares on a piece of paper — an exercise that he says keeps his fine motor skills sharp.
Hiatt speaks daily with his sister Sarah and brother Joshua, and he takes care of his parents with his eldest brother, Sean.
“I’m just unbelievably proud of him,” Sarah Hiatt, 41, said, “especially considering that John has to work twice as hard as somebody not on the spectrum.”
While at Beal College, Hiatt met Linda Orlando, a licensed clinician who has worked extensively with children and adults with autism, when he took her computer class.
“Because I had a lot of experience with autism I could tell he was on the spectrum before he said he was,” she said.
She recognized difficulties students on the spectrum often have — such as getting stressed out by too many questions on one page — and adapted her lessons to minimize them.
Hiatt had to deal with different professors and their individual teaching practices, and Orlando was always there to pull him out of class if necessary and explain social cues and appropriate classroom behavior.
“John worked really hard to complete his degree at Beal College,” she said. “He was really good about asking questions and trying to understand things.”
Hiatt later worked for Orlando at Behavior Health Solutions for ME in Brewer for more than a year until she shut the agency down earlier this year. She assigned him to work with families with children on the autism spectrum. Even though parents found it hard to understand their kids’ abilities because of communication difficulties, Orlando said Hiatt could always tell what the children understood and what they didn’t.
“He did well in school, he did well with the families and he works very hard to do everything right,” Orlando said.
Hiatt’s political aspirations are higher than the city and county levels. He said he wants to lead by example to offer children with disabilities hope.
It “makes no sense” for people with autism to be discouraged from holding steady jobs and live off of Social Security, he said.
“I want my wins to show to those with autism and families who have children with autism that if I can overcome what has happened to me in my life, and get elected to the school committee and get elected to county-wide office,” he said, “your kids have a chance.”