Where Rand Paul's small-government credo fails: kids with autism

Sen. Rand Paul says 'politicians get in the way of most answers.' But autism provides a compelling counterpoint. The federal government provides the vast majority of research money as well as crucial services and legal protections.

Charlie Neibergall/AP
Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky is greeted by Republicans before speaking at a gathering for local candidates Tuesday in Hiawatha, Iowa.

Senator Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, recently toured Iowa. During a meeting in Sioux City, he took a question from a 12-year-old diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The young man, who had previously  spoken with several presidential aspirants (including Senator Paul’s father, Ron Paul) asked what he would do about autism. According to The Des Moines Register, the senator replied:

I'm going to give you an answer you probably have never gotten before.... Here’s the real answer. Government's never going to find – and I'm not saying government can’t help, I support some government help for autism – but the answer's going to come from scientists. And politicians get in the way of most answers.

One problem with the senator’s remarks is that  82 percent of autism research funding comes from the federal government. Although there are legitimate concerns as to whether some of this funding is duplicative, it is hard to argue that government is “getting in the way” of scientists.

Another problem is that the senator seemed to assume that the only “answer” for autism is something that comes out of a test tube. But there are no medications for core symptoms of autism, and none are on the horizon.  So what would the senator do for people like his young questioner? 

More than 400,000 students with autism are receiving school services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Increasing numbers are going on to college, where they enjoy certain protections under  Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Unfortunately, many adults with autism  have trouble finding or holding a job. One of the few things working in their favor is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which forbids  employment discrimination against people with disabilities. 

If Paul were president, would he vigorously enforce these laws? Would he seek to change them? He needs to think seriously about such issues because autism is hardly a minor “niche” issue.  A 2008 national survey found that 39 percent of respondents knew someone with autism, and the figure is probably higher today.

There are a variety of approaches to autism policy, many of which rely on market forces and  individual choice. But it won’t do just to say that government should get out of the way and let scientists find the answers.

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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