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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Autism and Down Syndrome

Scores of readers have written in asking why Sen. John McCain had said several times during the debate that his running mate, Sarah Palin, knew about autism.

McCain: And, by the way, she also understands special-needs families. She understands that autism is on the rise, that we’ve got to find out what’s causing it, and we’ve got to reach out to these families, and help them, and give them the help they need as they raise these very special needs children. …

McCain: And I just said to you earlier, town hall meeting after town hall meeting, parents come with kids, children — precious children who have autism. Sarah Palin knows about that better than most.

It’s common knowledge that Palin’s youngest child, six-month-old Trig, has Down syndrome. Down syndrome is a chromosomal disorder characterized by cognitive delays and an idiosyncratic physical appearance. It’s very different from autism, which is a developmental disability that includes difficulty relating to others and communication problems of varying levels of severity. Its causes are still not completely understood, and there’s no genetic test like there is for Down syndrome.

Was McCain confused? Palin actually has a nephew with autism, so she has some familiarity with the disorder. McCain spokesman Brian Rogers mentioned this when we asked him about the remarks, but also told us that the candidate was referring to Palin’s “commitment and experience on special needs kids generally.” An alternative explanation voiced by some health professionals with expertise in this area: McCain mentioned autism in particular because he knew he’d be appealing to a bigger audience; autism affects a far larger number of Americans than does Down syndrome.