The candidates are all talking about it, but when Hillary Clinton said it, I cried.
"We will tackle everything from autism to Alzheimer's, cancer to diabetes, and make a real difference," she said, in her Pennsylvania primary victory speech. Later, looking at that one sentence in the light of day, I understood why it stopped me in my tracks. Hillary Clinton put autism first on her list of dreaded diseases. First, even though it wasn't in alphabetical order.
It didn't used to be like this. When my now twenty year-old son was first diagnosed in 1991, you had to spell the word "autism" for most politicians.
The cynical voice inside of me says it means nothing, McCain mentioned it, Obama mentioned it and Clinton's speech writers probably put it in to keep up.
The mother in me ignores the cynic and says: Who cares why she mentioned it. All that matters is that she did. She did it with great clarity. And in the midst of what was, for her, a pivotal moment.
And she was right.
Autism is decimating a generation of children. One in 150 children, at the least, is now being diagnosed. It is an epidemic and in comparison it is making polio look like a sore throat. In the years to come our homes, schools, recreational facilities, restaurants, doctors' offices -- our entire world -- will be packed with young adults with all kinds of serious and deep communication and behavioral difficulties. To be a bit more graphic: people who can't say words but can't stop screaming -- people whose inability to communicate causes a frustration level that leads to violence.
These people were poisoned. One of the culprits is, no doubt, the mercury preservative that was put willy-nilly into so many vaccines. Probably it was also something else in the air or water, in preservatives or cleaning solvents or in the plastics that are turning baby bottles into killers. Whatever the substance that caused the mass poison, the epidemic is going to continue to grow until we get some answers about what causes autism.
Say what you like about Hillary Clinton, but when it comes to priorities, she got one right by putting autism up there with the other crucial concerns of our society: war, economics and dependence on oil.
For me it also explains why I can't seem to drop her as my candidate, even though I don't like all she has said or done. When it comes down to it, I can't extricate myself from her because ultimately she is the only candidate who puts intellect and sentiment together for me in a way that I can't resist.
Our son's name is Daniel Mulvaney and he has a long history with the Clintons. He was diagnosed as Bill was in the final lap of his presidential run. I remember sitting in the den on election night watching the returns with my child-insomniac. Dan could not speak but, indeed, seemed to be cheering at the results. He jumped up and down and was happier than I had seen him in months. Maybe, he was "thinking about tomorrow," like the campaign song went in those days. Maybe "tomorrow" one of those medical geniuses we kept consulting -- and paying -- would crunch all of those voluminous sheets of data they kept asking us to provide and figure out how a kid who spoke English and had words in Spanish, Cantonese and Tagalog at the age of three, now could not utter a word.
Time moves slowly in the world of autism. Bill Clinton made it through his first term and autism remained a deep, dark mystery. It was, and is, infuriating to recall that the world knew more -- and perhaps cared more -- about our president's dalliances than it did about damage to a child's brain. While "investigative reporters" chased blue dresses rather than scientists, Dan's teachers and the "experts" they consulted didn't really know what to do with him. This wasn't a movie: my son was not a savant, he couldn't count cards like Dustin Hoffman or play music or recite poetry. All he seemed to want out of life was to play with ropes, particularly the ones on Venetian blinds.
"Is there something else he likes besides ropes?" an exasperated teacher asked.
"Bill Clinton," I replied, quite exasperated myself.
I figured she'd think I was, at best, delusional. In those days the conventional wisdom was that Dan would never progress beyond the level of a nonverbal two year old.
"Okay," she said. "We'll make a re-elect Bill Clinton poster."
He seemed to like doing that too, even though to get him to paste the words on oak tag, the teacher had to use a technique called "hand-over-hand," which is just about as discouraging as it sounds.
Back then in the first Clinton term we were so alone as parents of kids with autism. Now, even worse, we aren't alone, we seem to be members of the fastest growing club in America. I never imagined in those early years that autism would be a topic of conversation of anyone even remotely close to winning a presidential election.
Dan still does not speak although he now gets out a few guttural utterances, all of which thrill us to no end. He does sleep better than he used to though and was not awake when the word autism was uttered on Tuesday night.
In the morning I told him what Hillary Clinton had said.
As is often the case, he did not reply or react.
I know though, the way mothers know things, that he is thinking about tomorrow. About a speech that could lead to action.
Hillary Clinton, I hope your mention of autism came from the heart. And from the heart of your very good brain. Because Dan and the other kids need more than just a mention, they need action.
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