Event Confronts Prevalence, Politics of Autism

As Claire Danes said, “Autism does exist on a spectrum, and there are so many manifestations of it, so many kinds of expressions of it. And every case is particular.”

These vast variations and expressions of autism are part of the enigma that makes understanding the disorder from both the medical and political perspectives difficult.

On Tuesday evening, Nov. 10, at Claremont McKenna College’s Athenaeum, Professor John J. Pitney, Jr., spoke about his latest publication, “The Politics of Autism: Navigating the Contested Spectrum.” Pitney spoke about how autism involves policy in a variety of areas, from education to funding for scientific research.

As Pitney wrote in his book: “With autism politics, complexity accompanies uncertainty. Autism is a 'pervasive developmental disorder,' which means that it affects most areas of a person’s life. It is also a pervasive policy issue, straddling health, education, scientific research, insurance regulation and civil rights, among other issues. No government agency has exclusive jurisdiction over all of these areas.”

When TSL spoke with attendees of the talk, many of them expressed interest in knowing more about autism and the larger role it plays in society. Others also expressed prior experience working with those with autism and how it has shaped both their growth and interest.

“During my senior year of high school, I spent an hour everyday at a local preschool interacting and playing with many kids diagnosed with autism,” Annie Park CM '19 wrote in an email. “Through this experience, I became more attached to the subject. This Athenaeum talk seemed like a great way to expand my knowledge on this issue.”

Ravi Sadhu CM '19, who also attended the talk, wrote that “discussing autism is important, because people with autism have an identity. They deserve an equal chance to live their lives just as anybody else does. They deserve to go to school and have a job; these are fundamental rights of individuals. Not providing avenues for them to pursue those rights is the disturbing reality of the world today.”

Pitney's event also addressed the need for inclusiveness of those who have autism when it comes to the decision-making process.

“He said that when making policy on autism, people with autism should be included,” Park wrote. “They should have a say in policymaking since they are the ones that know what's best for themselves, and because they, too, are citizens with rights. This stood out to me because it is sad and disappointing that they don't have much say in issues that directly involve them.”

Sadhu echoed Park's sentiments.

“It's not the parents who should head the movement,” Sadhu wrote. “He said it was the autistic children themselves who should speak up for themselves. Autism comprises a whole spectrum of children with different abilities, and realizing the need to have specific resources based on the child is needed.”

This talk pointed out the critical nature of discourse on the controversial issues related to autism as well as the improvements needed to understand autism in its future in the political, medical, economic and social spheres. 

“Dialogue on issues such as autism is crucial because it is just so prevalent,” Park wrote. “So many people—our family members and peers—are diagnosed with autism. I believe dialogue is the best way for people to truly understand autism and really create a respectful and mutually beneficial environment for everybody.”

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