The media may be transfixed on "Joe the Plumber" today, but the real winner of last night's debate was autism.
I cannot recall a single disorder ever becoming so prominent in a national election as autism has been in 2008: Not cancer, not AIDS, not heart disease.
Autism was raised on the campaign trail (when Obama, McCain and Hillary Clinton all said it was increasing, and the potential vaccine connection must be researched), it was raised at both conventions, it was raised duing a FOX News interview with McCain and Sarah Palin, and it certainly came up last night at Hofstra University.
Tellingly, autism was brought up, unprompted and somewhat unexpectedly, by one of the candidates: John McCain, who was answering a question about why Sarah Palin would be qualified to step up to the Oval Office, should something terrible happen to him:
She'll be my partner. She understands reform. And, by the way, she also understands special-needs families. She understands that autism is on the rise, that we've got to find out what's causing it, and we've got to reach out to these families, and help them, and give them the help they need as they raise these very special needs children.
"Autism is on the rise, and we've got to find out what's causing it." To most parents of affected children, that was more than music to their ears -- it was a symphony. If autism is on the rise, then its cause is more than genetic. Something has gone terribly wrong, and we need to find out what it is. Now.
McCain's autism remark did not come from nowhere (and he was not confusing autism with Down Syndrome, as many believed).
He brought up autism because it is ubiquitous -- and it never was before.
Autism in the United States today is, simply, everywhere -- even in Sarah Palin's family. Her sister has a son with the disorder.
McCain did not have to be asked about autism to speak about it. All over the country, parents have been reaching out to him and to Sarah Palin (and to the Democrats as well) -- behind the scenes and in public -- telling their stories, pleading for research, begging for help at home and in the classroom. As Senator McCain said:
Town hall meeting after town hall meeting, parents come with kids, children -- precious children who have autism. Sarah Palin knows about that better than most. And we'll find and we'll spend the money, research, to find the cause of autism. And we'll care for these young children. And all Americans will open their wallets and their hearts to do so.
Now, it is certainly debatable that Sarah Palin knows about autism "better than most," and Barack Obama wisely chose to steer clear of that rhetorical iceberg. Instead, he clobbered McCain, who had just publicly vowed to spend taxpayer money on autism research and care (unless he meant that our rapidly emptying American wallets are supposed to cover the whole thing):
I think it's very commendable the work she's done on behalf of special needs. I agree with that, John. I do want to just point out that autism, for example, or other special needs will require some additional funding, if we're going to get serious in terms of research. That is something that every family that advocates on behalf of disabled children talk about. And if we have an across-the-board spending freeze, we're not going to be able to do it.
Ouch. Obama is right, of course. No one is going to cure autism (or anything) while a mandatory federal spending freeze is in place.
Reaction from autism parents that I know has been mixed, and quite pointed.
Mostly, people were thrilled to see autism placed front and center -- at last -- in the national political dialogue. (I do not recall autism ever coming up in the 2004 or 2000 race, though I could be wrong, and it was certainly never mentioned in elections before then).
There was this, from a father on Long Island:
Autism is now officially included among the major issues of the campaign and the day. The strategy of pushing each campaign to escalate the issue worked and played out in the debate. It reveals a respect that both campaigns have for the autism constituency. The ripple effects downstream in the political world will be interesting to watch. No politician will ignore or dismiss autism.
And this, from a mom in Wisconsin:
The ordinary viewer back home must be asking ...Why do we keep hearing about autism? Why does this disorder get mentioned in the presidential debate if it's nothing new? Especially, if doctors are just finally recognizing something that's always been around. More and more questions about autism are everywhere -.but no one has answers.
And a father in Oregon:
The CDC doesn't even acknowledge the number of autism cases is truly rising. Contrasting that to the way McCain talks is a story in of itself.
Skepticism, however, was keeping close company with appreciation last night. A mother in Manhattan wrote:
"Getting to the bottom of this" means being unafraid of asking tough questions. Are they prepared to DO this? They cannot work on what is causing autism without talking about vaccines, or else we continue to run in place. The government MUST support independent vaccine research now. No more millions down the drain for studies on genetics. That money would be so much better spent supporting autism families in crisis
And this from a mom in New Jersey:
These politicians just woke up and realized that half the country is affected by autism and they better say something? Call the World Wrestling Foundation and get the choreographer on the phone, he may be the only one who can explain this latest development.
Some people thought the Republican team would be better suited to tackle autism head on, like this Democratic dad from Massachusetts:
I'll probably vote for Obama, but I think McCain is the better autism candidate. Why?
He asked for our vote and he promised to get to the bottom of the epidemic. He seems to get it. Obama lumps autism in with the general category of developmental disability, rather than focusing a targeted effort to solve the autism problem and make it disappear. But the issue came up multiple times in a presidential debate, for God's sake!! McCain put the issue on the table and said all the right things -Obama steered away from it and has dodged the issue every time it's been raised. If I were a single issue voter, the choice would be pretty clear.
But a mother from Long Island begged to differ:
They bring up issues when they don't have anything else to say. Palin has VERY little expertise. That fact that her family is in the special needs community is all I have heard. I haven't heard any detailed stories or facts from her or McCain. I haven't seen any proof that she knows crap about autism other than 'I know autism'. Oh, Ok, I'm just supposed to trust that.
There has been quite a bit of debate over Palin's record on special needs children in Alaska. Early reports erroneously stated that she had cut special education funding (she hadn't, the money was moved to another line in the budget).
But skepticism abounds. For example, this attorney (also a Democrat) from Connecticut, who works with special needs children, recently posted the following on her blog:
Gov. Palin's views on this are far outdated. I have traveled to Alaska to give a speech to parents and professionals on the subject of the rights of children with special needs. I was stunned by how far behind the State was from the vast majority of the rest of the country on the education of children with disabilities... I am in regular contact with a colleague of mine who is a Parents' attorney in Alaska, who has had to fight tooth and nail for children with special needs in Alaska simply to secure them the most basic of services that we take for granted here. I for one do not want the rest of the country to use Alaska's system of educating our most vulnerable children as a paradigm.I also know of autism parents who are suing the Palin administration to get services for their children. But Palin's record is more complex than that.
In fact, in this year's budget, Governor Palin authorized a major increase in funds for "intensive needs" children, (the official Alaska term). When she came to office in 2006, according to the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska was spending just $27,000 a year per child. This year, the budget she signed increased that amount to $49,000, and in three years it will reach $74,000. (So much for spending freezes, but them again, unlike the US, Alaska is awash in cash).
The subject of "intensive needs" and autism came up in another debate as well, back when Palin was running for Governor. And it shed some light on both her ideological, as well as personal motivations. As the Anchorage Daily News reported:
Palin said she wanted to diminish the oppressive hand of government while still providing needed help. Services, the Republican candidate said, shouldn't be dictated by government; ideas should come from the bottom up. Topping her list of social and health priorities: housing, a trained work force and containing costs. She glanced at sheets of notes as she spoke. She also talked about her young nephew, who has autism, describing him as a "red-headed angel."
Most autism parents I know, including Republicans, believe that autism services should most certainly be "dictated" by government, (though they might use a more moderate word, like "mandated," or "required.") So, that statement is sure to cause a certain amount of consternation among "autism voters," if there is such a thing.
Then again, the ADN article included another quote from Palin that might raise some eyebrows among all voters.
During a gubernatorial debate in Wasilla, her hometown in the heart of the Mat-Su Valley, she had this to say:
You will have an advocate down there in Juneau, of course. Certainly people will assume that I am biased toward the Valley in the decisions I make. So be it, because I will be.
Now, some voters might interpret this to mean that Sarah Palin's decisions in Washington -- should she get there -- would be equally biased toward Alaska.
But I know a lot of parents who would be perfectly happy to see a little bias towards autism, as well.