Well Being

Autism “Debates”

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There's plenty to debate about regarding autism and the speech about special needs children that Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin is to give today in Pittsburgh —-her first about public policy—-should set off more. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, she's to deliver the speech this morning at the morning at the Airport Marriott in Pittsburgh before an invited crowd of 350.

Update 13:00 EST: Here's the text of Palin's speech.Palin talks about “these beautiful children” and these are her three policy proposals: more choices for parents, fully funding IDEA, and efforts to reform and refocus. I just heard about some budget issues in my own school district that have reminded me of the need to fully fund IDEA and Palin's noting of this is good to hear. IDEA, she notes, will be funded by “prioritizing” how money is spent, and especially funds that are “earmarks for political pet projects” such as “fruit fly research in Paris, France, or a public policy center named for the guy who got the earmark.” “School choice” has been a central part of Senator John McCain's educational policy throughout the campaign and Palin adapts the notion “school choice” to special needs students.

In a McCain-Palin administration, we will put the educational choices for special needs children in the right hands their parents'. Under reforms that I will lead as vice president, the parents and caretakers of children with physical or mental disabilities will be able to send that boy or girl to the school of their choice — public or private.

Under our reforms, federal funding for every special needs child will follow that child. Some states have begun to apply this principle already, as in Florida's McKay Scholarship program. That program allows for choices and a quality of education that should be available to parents in every state, for every child with special needs. This process should be uncomplicated, quick, and effective — because early education can make all the difference. No barriers of bureaucracy should stand in the way of serving children with special needs.


Even the best public school teacher or administrator cannot rightfully take the place of a parent in making these choices. The schools feel responsible for the education of many children, but a parent alone is responsible for the life of each child. And in the case of parents of children with disabilities, there are enough challenges as it is, and our children will face more than enough closed doors along the way. When our sons and daughters need better education, more specialized training, and more individual attention, the doors of opportunity should be open.

Like John McCain, I am a believer in providing more school choice for families. The responsibility for the welfare of children rests ultimately with mothers and fathers, and the power to choose should be theirs as well. But this larger debate of public policy should not be permitted to hinder the progress of special-needs students. Where their lives, futures, and happiness are at stake, we should have no agenda except to ease the path they are on. And the best way to do that is to give their parents options.

The “options” Palin discusses here are only vaguely connected to the educational issues that face autistic children and their families. Being able to have one's child attend the “school of one's choice” is just one issue among many others that families have to consider in providing an appropriate education for their child: Training of teachers and staff, adequate teachers and staff, supervision, inclusion for special needs students with their non-classified peers are just a few that must be considered first and foremost.

Palin's been quoted as saying that families with special needs children would “‘have a friend and an advocate in the White House'” were she and Senator John McCain to win the election; what, though, about adults with disabilities, who make up 90% of the those with disabilities in the US?

Another autism topic that is regularly the subject of heated debate is whether or not vaccines or something in vaccines can be linked to autism. But while more and more scientific studies refute a link, this particular topic is still regularly portrayed as a “debate” with two equally valid sides, and as a debate and even a disagreement that puts cold-hearted science-bound scientists against distraught parents of autistic children who are staunch and fearless advocates.

There's a tendency, that is, to invoke a sort of symmetry principle in talking about the notion that vaccines or something in vaccines might be linked to autism. The adamantine pronouncements of scientists defending science itself are contrasted to the pained, highly emotional charges of parents trying to “get to the bottom” of whatever “made” a child to “become” autistic. An October 23rd Bergen Record article about a conference at Hackensack University Medical Center and hosted by the Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology. Journalist David Kirby and the grandmother of an autistic child are contrasted with scientists and doctors.

Dr. Lawrence Rosen, a pediatrician and one of the speakers, told the audience that every family he treats is consumed by the issue.

“Ten years ago, I was having these discussions maybe once a week,” Rosen said “Now it’s every single family that comes in.”

While none of the speakers advocated an anti-vaccine perspective, Kirby said there are many questions that need to be resolved, adding that studying differences in the vaccinated and unvaccinated population should be a national priority.

The author of “Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines,” Kirby said he suspects that that there are children with a genetic predisposition that makes them vulnerable to an adverse reaction.

“It may be a very small percentage, but if they exist, we need to identify them, and I believe separate them out and possibly vaccinate them separately,” he said.

He also said his research showed that many of the autistic children were ill when they were vaccinated.

“You don’t vaccinate a sick child,” Kirby said. “It says so right on the label.”

Margaret Fisher, medical director of the Children’s Hospital at Monmouth Medical Center, said there are sound medical reasons for the early required immunizations.

Thos who regularly follow this topic have, too, regularly noted David Kirby's reliance on rebranding and rhetoric to keep the notion of a vaccine-autism link alive. “‘You don’t vaccinate a sick child…..It says so right on the label'”: These short and snappy sound byte-ish phrases regularly lace the arguments of antivaccinationists, who call out “change the schedule!” and “green our vaccines.” And they are effective. As the Bergen Record notes, seemingly every family with young children is raising the question of whether or not to vaccinate.

Sound bytes stick in the mind. But surely we ought to make decisions about our children's health based on something more substantial?