President-Elect Trump’s Potential Effect on Public Education and Neurodiversity

By Iustitia Legal Center

This post is part of the 2017 Transition series, in which iustitia explores the perspectives, statements, and proposed policies of the incoming U.S. administration and how it may affect the populations that iustitia works with. Read other posts in this series here.

With the Republican control of the executive branch, Congress, and soon, the Supreme Court, as well as a majority of governorships and state houses, Republican leaders will have an unprecedented opportunity to set the political agenda and the path that the country will take for the foreseeable future.

Trump’s pick for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, threatens access to public education for all, however, students who have mental illness, autism, or intellectual disability, will suffer the most. Ms. DeVos’ platform to expand voucher programs and give families taxpayer dollars to attend private and religious schools will slowly but surely dismantle the current public education system. Under the guise of pro-school-choice, Ms. DeVos has led the rise of charter schools in Michigan to the detriment of educational quality.

Under her leadership, students who are already falling through the cracks may never be permitted to address the concerns of private or religious education, which are not accountable to any external processes. The voucher system often “gives taxpayer support to institutions that don’t have the same obligation to serve all students” as public institutions particularly, those who are dyslexic, on the autism spectrum, have an intellectual disability, or who are in need of extra time and attention. Students often lose their rights to due process under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act when attending private schools. Therefore, this push will further endanger the neurodiversity movement, which sought to integrate and enrich the experience of all students.

It should also be noted that Mr. Trump seems to believe the medically unfounded assertion that vaccinations cause autism spectrum disorder. There are signs that Trump plans to “de-emphasize support for autistic people and their families, and at the same time erode mandatory vaccination laws.” There is no concrete research that shows vaccinations are linked to autism and they vaccinations themselves are necessary to ensure a happy and healthy society. Furthermore, treating autism as a disease that must be treated and corrected serves only to stigmatize individuals, particularly children, and erode social and educational support they may receive. The neurodiversity movement, which demonstrates that autism is not a disease, but rather individuals on the autism spectrum can live happy, healthy, and fulfilling lives in societies that understand and accept neurodiversity, has had recent successes.

Rather than reenergize the stigma, what is required is improved services for those on the spectrum and their families to ensure that individuals are not forgotten. This is particularly important within the education system. If Mr. Trump continues down this pathway of supporting the unfounded idea that stopping vaccinations are the cure for autism, the neurodiversity movement will come under serious threat, and the gains made by individuals on the autism spectrum and their allies will be similarly threatened. It is vital that we continue to fight in support of the neurodiversity movement, however, without support from the government and full protection of the laws, this battle will become ever more difficult.