Special Education

Sarah Palin’s Sister Speaks About Autism, Politics

By Christina A. Samuels — October 23, 2008 3 min read
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Sarah Palin’s sister Heather Bruce, who has a 13-year-old son with autism, gave an hourlong interview on Autism One Radio yesterday where she talked about her own experiences with her child and how her family situation has affected her sister’s views.

Autism One Radio is an interesting entity: Autism One is a nonprofit advocacy organization founded by parents of children with autism, and the “radio station” is entirely Web-based, which allows programs to be downloaded and consumed at any time, by any one who has a computer.

Bruce, who lives with her husband and three children in Anchorage, spent most of the interview talking life with her son, Karcher. In the first year or so of his life, he met all the appropriate developmental milestones, she said. But as he got older he began retreating into what seemed like his own little world, refusing to respond to his name, playing with the same toys over and over again, and eating only a few specific foods.

The family doctor suggested that he just had some language delays, but when Bruce read a story in her local newspaper about a child with autism, she realized that the symptoms matched her son’s behaviors very closely. He was tested and diagnosed with a moderate-to-severe manifestation of the disorder, and has received special education services since he was very young.

Bruce is clearly proud of her little sis and would be thrilled if she won (as would be the hosts of the show, Robert and Sandy Waters; their preference for the McCain/Palin ticket was not hidden.) But I also found her intriguingly apolitical in some respects, at least on this issue.

For example, when asked about the excitement among some advocates that her sister’s run has generated, she said: “I’ve seen it on both sides and both parties, and it’s amazing. You would have never heard the word autism by either party, in any presidential campaign. So whoever wins, they’re committed now, they have to be, [because] people know. They’re going to expect some kind of movement or some kind of progression and I think it’s really going to help.”

The entire interview can be downloaded by clicking here and scrolling down for the link for the Oct. 22 interview. Though the interview is too long to transcribe completely, I’ve included a few interesting snippets:

On vaccines and Karcher’s autism:
We’re not sure if our son had a genetic makeup that predisposed him to autism, if these vaccinations kicked that into gear or not. It’s definitely in the forefront now instead of in the back of our mind, if he just has a fragile immune system we just don’t know.

On Sarah Palin’s relationship with Karcher:
She can communicate with him and get down to his level and she understands, which is hard for even for some relatives to understand, just how concrete and logical you have to be with an autistic child. We’ve always been impressed with the way Sarah can handle herself around Karcher and communicate with him, knows his likes and his dislikes. ... she’s very sympathetic and...affectionate. Some people are afraid to be affectionate with special needs kids but you know, this boy needs and loves a hug just as much as the next normal kid.

And she understands that too, and I think that prepared her, unknowingly, for being able to handle her own special needs baby and accepting it and seeing the contribution that these kids give to a family and to society.

On her sister as an advocate:
She wants to help. She wants to help so badly, but she has a lot to learn, and she knows it. She’s fresh into this, being an advocate for autism, for Down syndrome. People expect her to know everything about everything…

[She has said] We need to sit down Heather, tell me what your needs are, what do you wish you could see, what do you think would help the state. And that was just the time she was the governor.

On Bruce’s hopes for autism advocacy after the election and in the future:
The national autistic groups, they have to work with both parties, Republican and Democrat. They have to because, no matter who wins, they’re going to be expected to step up to the plate a little bit more on this issue. There’s an awareness now; it will rise.

On her sister’s recent appearance on Saturday Night Live:
I thought that it was hilarious, I laughed the hardest when they brought out the spoof Todd Palin lookalike there in his suit. It’s all in good fun....I thought it was fine. We got a good chuckle.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.