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Comparing the Presidential Candidates' Views on Autism

Posted Nov 10 2008 5:54pm
The Autism Society of America recently invited the presidential candidates to submit statements about their views on autism and posted those statements on the ASA website. Unfortunately, John McCain's response consists mainly of alarmist rhetoric, ignorant stereotyping, and bogus statistics. Here's an excerpt:

More than one in 150 children born today will be diagnosed with autism. It now affects almost 1.5 million Americans, and costs the U.S. $ 90 billion each year. Autism has a significant impact on families -- bankruptcy and divorce rates of parents of children with autism are well above the national averages. Worse, there is no quantifiable way of determining how many future doctors, lawyers, teachers, or scientists autism has taken from society. Autism is a national crisis and the federal government must respond accordingly.

I've written before about how obnoxious it is when politicians ignore the social and economic contributions of people with disabilities and reduce human lives to costs, so I won't go into detail on that point. Rather, I'll move on to discussing McCain's uncritical acceptance of the totally groundless urban legend about autism destroying families. Susan Senator recently wrote a blog post on that topic —take a look at her comments to find several cites to research studies establishing that families with autistic children do not have higher than average divorce rates. This illustrates McCain's approach to national policy decisions: when there aren't any statistics to support a popular prejudice, just make something up.

And yup, he just gets worse when he goes on to portray autism in medieval changeling terms, as stealing children from society. Those of us who are autistic and are employed in professional careers such as those McCain mentioned, or who have autistic professionals in our families (both, in my case), know how wrong and harmful it is to perpetuate the stereotype that we are incapable of professional employment. Apparently McCain is clueless as usual on this point, though. He clearly never considered what happens in the real world as a result of that prejudice when an autistic teenager wants to enroll in college preparatory classes, or when an autistic freshman tells his university advisor that he is considering a pre-med or pre-law major, or when an autistic student enters her senior year of college with high marks and applies to a graduate program, or when one of us emerges from the comparatively sheltered environment of academia and applies for that first professional job.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, made it clear in his statement on the ASA website that he understands the importance of ending disability discrimination. After a paragraph discussing research and education, Obama wrote:

I also support the adoption of a comprehensive plan designed to provide lifelong supports and resources to Americans with ASD and other disabilities. This plan would ensure that their needs are met by:

· Reclaiming America's global leadership on disability issues by becoming a signatory to—and having the Senate ratify—the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities;
· Providing Americans with disabilities with the educational opportunities they need to succeed.
· Ending discrimination and promoting equal opportunity
· Increasing the employment rate of workers with disabilities, and
· Supporting independent, community-based living for Americans with disabilities.

Now that's a lot more like it.
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