The first time autism spectrum disorder was raised in this political campaign, in one of the Republican debates, the conversation took a predictable path into a conversation about vaccines and their supposed connection to the neurological disability.
And that’s the way conversations about autism generally go: there’s a lot of talk about the increase in the number of cases of autism being diagnosed, but fewer high-profile discussions about how to support children and adults with autism and their families.
Hillary Clinton’s autism policy proposal released earlier today is noteworthy for flipping the script, a bit: the proposal devotes a lot of attention to the needs of young people with autism, such as supporting laws that would outlaw restraint and seclusion in schools, or that would protect students with autism from bullying—both issues that disproportionately affect students with disabilities.
The proposal would also support research into adults with autism, and promote partnerships aimed at getting employers to hire more people with the disorder, which is characterized by difficulties in social interaction and communication.
The focus on people living with autism—not just figuring out what causes it—comes fom the campaign contact with organizations such as the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network. In a press call discussing the proposal, ASAN president Ari Ne’eman said that it’s rare that people with autism are asked their opinion about the policy proposals that would affect their lives:
“Typically when the conversation occurs, it’s filtered very heavily around discussions about causation. The average person does not wake up in the morning and say, ‘have there been any novel research findings regarding my disability today?” Ne’eman said.
Rather, he said, most people would want to know “are they working on ways that will make it more likely that I will be able to find and keep a job” or have access to education.
It’s also noteworthy, though, that much of the proposal is built around supporting programs that already exist in policy or law. For example, the proposal would direct federal officials “to provide clear information to physicians and parents so that they know that all [Affordable Care Act] health plans must cover autism screening at 18 and 24 months.” Many health providers are already doing that, because the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended autism screenings at those ages since 2006.
The proposal also says Clinton would “direct the Department of Education to work with schools to ensure that every young adult with autism has a transition plan on time.” The Individuals with Disabilities Act already has a provision that any student covered by the law must start transition planning by age 16. A concern is that those transition plans have to be meaningful; there’s little research in effective programs that help students with disabilities bridge the gap from high school to adulthood.
The part of the policy proposal that comes with a price tag are some of the new research priorities, said campaign spokesman Brian Fallon. The exact increase in this area will be revealed in coming weeks as a part of a comprehensive research agenda proposal he said. In addition to autism, Clinton has said she would direct more money to be spent in researching disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Photo: Brittni Mulvin, a teacher at the Arizona Autism School in Phoenix, leads a combined class of 1st and 2nd grade students. Founded by a parent, the 90-student charter school filled up immediately upon opening in 2014.—Patrick Breen for Education Week.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.