A National Institutes of Health website states that autism spectrum disorder causes “severe and pervasive impairment in thinking, feeling, language, and the ability to relate to others.” The severity can range from the more serious autistic disorder to the milder Asperger’s syndrome.
Not long ago, Alabama State Representative Cam Ward knew almost nothing about autism spectrum disorder. In just a few short years, the 38-year-old Republican has become a vocal state and national advocate for people with autism.
His 6-year-old daughter Riley has autism. “And we’re going through what every other family with it has to go through,” said Ward in a telephone interview. “When first learning about it, it can be a scary and confusing time because you just don’t know what to do.”
All children with autism show deficits in verbal and nonverbal communication, and social skills, and exhibit repetitive behaviors and/or interests.
“We didn’t learn about the autism until my second term in office,” he said. “I didn’t even understand what it was, but was thrust into it. Having her have autism began putting a lot of things in perspective for us right away. Often, we politicians campaign on abstract ideas, which can be good, but there are a lot of other issues like autism that affect people on a day-to-day basis that we can’t push to the backburner.”
For example, he said having a child with autism can put a strain on a marriage. Ward credited his wife Julie as the family “hero” for her efforts in helping raise Riley, who has progressed remarkably with her social skills. He also praised an early intervention program.
Besides being an advocate through answering constituent questions, Ward has championed state legislation, named “The Riley Act,” to create an interagency council in Alabama that coordinates the efforts of nine state agencies serving an estimated 30,000 Alabamans with autism. He also supported a law to create regional autism service centers based at Alabama universities.
Last year, Ward publicly took on popular talk radio host Michael Savage, who suggested autism was a hoax caused primarily by bad parenting. “It was an unfortunate, ignorant statement on his part,” Ward said of Savage. “He obviously didn’t know what autism was like dealing with or had been with a family that had to deal with it.”
The key to overcoming societal misconceptions about autism was persistence, he added.