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American Campaigner’s Excitement Over Hillary Clinton’s Autism Plan

January 7, 2016

From yesterday’s Guardian:

Hillary Clinton just made disability history. For the first time, a mainstream political candidate prioritized the rights and opinions of autistic people by embracing policies that autistic advocates and activists have rallied around for years.

Clinton’s autism plan, announced Tuesday, is well-informed and shows a grasp of the issues that few outside of disability rights circles have. If she wins the election and does even half of the things she promises, she could make an enormous difference in the everyday lives of autistic people. If she loses, she has still tremendously raised the bar on how presidential candidates can and should address autism.

Her plan focuses on necessary and sorely needed support programs for autistic people: improving employment opportunities and housing availability, significantly limiting the use of physical restraints, guaranteeing access to assistive communication technology for people who are nonverbal or have difficulty with spoken language and a specific call to do research on adult autism prevalence and needs. These issues are of vital importance to autistic people and our loved ones. No other major US presidential candidate has made these issues a part of his or her political platform.

Political discourse around autism in the US has followed a very different narrative over the past few decades: autism is a tragedy. Autism is an epidemic. Autistic children need you all to donate money to genetics research that will not help those currently living with autism in any direct or meaningful way.

The fear of this “autism epidemic” is used to justify any number of illogical, yet widely accepted, perspectives, like the repeatedly debunked notion that childhood vaccines cause autism. It is apparently better for dozens to die from measles than to possibly risk that your child might become autistic. In this perverse worldview, autistic adults do not matter. We are the worst outcome. We can be consigned to segregated workshops where we do meaningless work like unwrapping bars of soap or capping lotion bottles for less than minimum wage – if we are employed at all. After our parents die, we disappear entirely. This may seem dystopian, but it is reality for many Americans.

It isn’t just the shift in emphasis that I applaud, but the language itself. The extreme, pathological language that usually surrounds autism is almost totally absent from Clinton’s proposal. The word “epidemic” doesn’t even occur once. “Disease” only occurs in reference to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Oftentimes, autism is portrayed as a sort of tumor – an unpleasant, discrete growth that can be separated from its “host” and destroyed. The thing is, autism doesn’t work that way, and Clinton’s proposal doesn’t act like it does. She doesn’t talk about combating autism. Instead, she provides concrete ways to improve the lives of autistic Americans. I am delighted.

As a left-leaning 20-something, I would have never predicted that I would use the word “delighted” in relation to Hillary Clinton. She’s hawkish and relatively conservative. During her time in the Senate, she spoke against marriage equality and voted for domestic surveillance. Like many of my peers, I should be “feeling the Bern”. However, in promising to help support and preserve the rights of people whose humanity is rarely acknowledged, she has proposed something more progressive than many, if not all, of her opponents’ policies.

Donald Trump’s offhand and ill-informed comments about the supposed link between childhood vaccination and autism are even more obscene in the light of how well Clinton, or at least Clinton’s advisers, understand the issues. She is even far surpassing Bernie Sanders in this area – he hasn’t said a word about an autism platform. If he releases his own autism plan, I will reconsider my position.

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