Learning to Understand His Son's Autism, Discovering Federal Policy Gaps

National Journal

Clinton Foundation/Nelson Chenault

In Little Rock: Tyler, Bill, Ron 

The National Journal Political Landscape is a weekly conversation about the news of the day with National Journal writers, editors and outside experts.

Ron Fournier, National Journal's editorial director, called it his "Max Braverman moment." Ron's son, Tyler, was 12 at the time. Tyler had always struggled to fit in. He came across as blunt, sometimes rude and isolationist, but obsessively smart about certain things. 

One night, Fournier's wife, Lori, told him to watch an episode of the NBC drama Parenthood and look particularly at this character Max Braverman. Lori recognized Tyler in Max. In last week's magazine, Fournier writes, "Max Braverman is a sweet, wickedly smart boy. He is also rude, obsessed with insects, and prone to meltdowns. His parents ricochet between exasperation, guilt, and fear. Max has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism that hinders social interaction."

Lori said to Fournier, "Tyler might be autistic."

That night, Fournier sat down and watched an episode of the show. Then another. Then another. Until 3 am. He writes, "Suddenly, it seemed clear what was wrong with our little boy. I wept and convulsed with fear. Also, relief."

Tyler had Asperger's, just like Max Braverman.

In 2012, 46,000 children will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. And it's a number that is increasing rapidly. In 2005, 1 in 166 children were diagnosed with autism. Today, it's 1 in 88.

Gary Mayerson, a board member at Autism Speaks, a leading advocacy group for people with autism, calls the growing number of children with autism an "epidemic." The cost of take care of an autistic person over their entire lifetime can run upwards of $2.3 million. Often that cost falls on local school systems. Mayerson also heads a New York City law firm that represents primarily special education children diagnosed with autism and other developmental disabilities.

On this week's episode, autism, Asperger's, and the changing federal policy for children with these challenges. Last week, Bob Wright, co-founder of Autism Speaks, spoke to Congress, pushing for the lame duck Congress to pass two autism-related bills. His speech highlighted two things. One, the current gaps in policy and lack of access to programs for children with autism. And two, the significant changes and improvements in funding over the last 10 to 20 years for children with autism.

Mayerson will bring us that history and explain where the current gaps are in federal policy.

Fournier will bring us his personal story of bonding with his son Tyler as the two embarked on a road trip to visit some historical landmarks and meet former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, both of whom Fournier had covered during his long career as a journalist.

Check out last week's episode, "Will Increased Competition in Health Care Exchanges Actually Raise Costs?"

Check out all episodes of the Political Landscape.

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