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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is deploying an age-old tactic in her budget fight with the Legislature -- withhold spending from cherished programs to build public pressure on lawmakers to cave.

That’s why she cut the popular Pure Michigan tourism campaign.

But she’s made a serious miscalculation in slashing funds to assist families with autistic children.

As part of her $1 billion in spending vetoes, the governor stripped the roughly $1 million appropriation for the Autism Navigator, a hotline that offers crisis counseling for autistic families and individuals.

It’s run by the Autism Alliance of Michigan.

The Navigator directs callers to the best agencies and programs to help meet their needs. Over its eight years the Navigator has become a lifeline for families struggling to provide informed care for loved ones on the autism spectrum.

The hotline was championed by former Lt. Gov.Brian Calley, who has an autistic child.

“It is one of the most successful public-private partnerships in Michigan,” Calley says. “I’m shocked and disappointed that it would be used as leverage in a budget deal.”

Calley described the Navigator as vital in helping families find assistance with diagnosis, insurance questions, treatment providers and expert caseworkers.

“Without it, it would be like stepping back in time 10 years when Michigan was one of the worst states in the nation for autism services,” Calley says.

This cut seems particularly ruthless because it directly impacts House Speaker Lee Chatfield, who also has a child and a sister with spectrum disorder.

It’s also a curious political move. Whitmer spoke at the alliance’s fundraiser last spring and promised to be an “ally” of the organization and its members.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates one in 68 children are on the autism spectrum. The disorder most often manifests itself in difficulties with communication and social interactions.

Coping can be a frustrating struggle for autistic individuals and their caregivers.

Using families who are already dealing with enormous challenges as pawns in this political standoff with the Legislature is cruel.

When Whitmer meets with legislative leaders Thursday, restoring the Autism Navigator funds should be the first order of business.

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