Last week, radio talk-show host Michael Savage talked about autism:
I’ll tell you what autism is. In 99 percent of the cases, it’s a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out. That’s what autism is. What do you mean they scream and they’re silent? They don’t have a father around to tell them, `Don’t act like a moron. You’ll get nowhere in life. Stop acting like a putz. Straighten up. Act like a man. Don’t sit there crying and screaming, idiot.”
I’m not an impartial observer here. My six-year-old son has high-functioning autism. He is exactly the kind of kid that Savage attacked.
Savage’s comments were wrong and harmful. Some autistic kids do learn to read and speak, which is why misinformed people may think that they are not “genuinely handicapped.” Yes, they are. Autism is a brain disorder that affects everything from social communication to physical coordination. Autistic people have multiple problems that make it hard for them to do things that the rest of us take for granted. It may take them years to learn how to toss a ball or nod their head.
And even when they can talk, they often have odd speech patterns that instantly mark them as autistic. Other kids taunt them with the very words that Savage used. If they respond verbally, their speech problems will draw even more taunting. If they respond with their fists, they run the risk that authorities will label them as “violent.”
Once in a while, parents take the approach that Savage recommends. It never works. Screaming insults at a handicapped kid is not child-rearing. It’s child abuse.
Conservatives need to speak out against Savage. Many news stories label him as “conservative” or “right-wing,” which may prompt some people to think that we agree with him. Savage has a long history of disgusting comments, which has led David Klinghoffer to speculate that his act is a giant liberal put-on, a “lefty’s cartoon mental picture of a ranting right-wing caveman.”
The liberal website Media Matters has spearheaded the backlash against Savage’s autism comments. Understandably, conservatives might be uneasy about siding with such an outfit. Savage has tried to exploit such feelings by casting his critics as PC leftists. But just because the folks at Media Matters oppose child abuse, it doesn’t follow that we conservatives should accept it just for the sake of disagreeing with them.
Besides, liberals do not have a corner on concern for autism. California’s 1969 Lanterman Act was a landmark in serving people with autism and other disabilities. Its sponsor was a Republican, as was the governor who signed it: Ronald Reagan. In 2006, President Bush signed the Combating Autism Act. Its author was Senator Rick Santorum (R., PA).
Savage has cited respectable commentators who suggest that many kids with the autistic label are merely late talkers. His defense fails on two counts. First, these commentators don’t speak in the hateful language that he has used. Second, although they make their argument in good faith, they get things backward.
When you first notice that your child has a speech delay — around his second birthday — autism is the last thing that you want to think about. Autism is devastating and frightening. It’s more comforting to think that your kid is just starting late and will catch up soon. Clutching the “late talker” security blanket, some parents wait months or years before admitting the possibility of autism.
At that point, they may indeed conclude that a formal diagnosis could be important in getting help. States and school districts often pay for the assessment. Every autism diagnosis means thousands of dollars for services that the federal government mandates but does not fully subsidize. With tight budgets, the authorities have no incentive to encourage overdiagnosis. Once in a while, a child may incorrectly get the autism label, but underdiagnosis is probably a much bigger problem.
We need more study of the causes and prevalence of autism. At the moment, though, the issue is Michael Savage’s attack. He has since claimed that he is a nice guy who wants help to go to those who truly need it. Nonsense. If he cared about autistic kids, he wouldn’t have spewed words such as “moron” and “idiot.”
And he shouldn’t claim to be a conservative. He has cheapened political discourse and hurt defenseless children. There’s nothing conservative about that.
– John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.