Autism in the Presidential debate?

Was it just me, or did anyone else find it jarring when suddenly John McCain interjected special needs children and autism into the debate last night? As you may recall, a few months ago he was tripped up by the antivaccine fearmongers who think, despite an absence of scientifically compelling evidence supporting their view, that vaccines cause autism. Now that Sarah Palin is on the ticket, he’s doing it again, this time in the context of discussing her qualifications to be President. As part of a response to a question about why the country would be better off if his choice of a running mate became President compared to Barack Obama’s choice (Joe Biden), he said:

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.

In the context of a question about special education, he said:

And I just said to you earlier, 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.

Ugh.

I suppose I should give McCain some credit in that someone probably told him to cool it about the whole vaccine thing, that there was no science supporting it, but someone needs to tell him that whether or not the prevalence of autism is truly on the rise is pretty much an open question. Indeed, there is plenty of good evidence that it is not and that the apparent increase in autism cases is due the broadening of diagnostic criteria, greater awareness, and diagnostic substitution, in which children who would in the past have been diagnosed as mentally retarded or with other developmental disorders are now more appropriately classified as being on the autistic spectrum. Given how much out of left field these comments are (especially the comments about how having a special needs child somehow makes Palin more qualified to be President), I have to wonder if this is nothing more than pandering to the antivaccine crowd in a more subtle way. Dad of Cameron wonders the same:

She understands that autism is on the rise? Really? Can she clearly convey the distinction between more diagnoses, and an actual increase in prevalence? Does she understand diagnostic substitution? What about the broadening criteria and the changes in the very definition of autism? Does she really understand this? Or, is McCain pandering and simply parroting anti-vaccination and anti-autism advocate fundraisers’ “autism epidemic” rhetoric?

So does Sullivan:

Senator McCain may have thought that he was winning my vote, but he just lost it. Yes, disability issues, especially autism, play a role in my choice. But, this looks too much like pandering to the vaccine-autism crowd while doing the politician’s two-step around the sticky details.

I.e. it was “let’s use code words about the epidemic and vaccines to gather votes”.

I really hope I am wrong, but that was my read.

That was my read, too. Although one could argue that mentioning autism in the context of a discussion about education is part of the topic, in the context of whether Sarah Palin would make a good President, mentioning special needs children and autism seemed to come right out of left field. “She understands reform, and, by the way, she understands special needs families”? Such an awkward segue is the indication of a politician slipping a talking point in whether it fits the conversation or not. It was clearly planned to mention this, no matter whether it was appropriate or not. It came across as pandering, with a wink and a nudge.

It’s also very distasteful the way McCain and Palin use her son with Down’s syndrome every chance they get for political purposes, as Charles Fox points out:

I have been simmering on a daily basis every time Governor Palin holds up her son Trig as a political symbol. I have to say, that I think all small children should be left out of the political forum, and it is wrong to use an infant with special needs as an emblem of your own personal rectitude.

Indeed.