2 Feb 2009

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen speaks about Action for Children ad

I've been granted permission to share a recent email I received from Professor Baron-Cohen of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University regarding the current advertising campaign by Action for Children:

"Whilst I support any efforts to help children with autism and to alleviate suffering, I hope there will be more thought given to both the language and the imagery we use, to avoid risk of offence. For example, the name of the charity DAN contains the word "Defeat", as if autism is a disease like cancer against which we have to wage war. Autism is a complex mix of disability and strength, and whilst we need to work to find imaginative ways to reduce the disabling aspects, we do not wish to "defeat autism" since this would also eliminate the positive aspects. The latter include an excellent attention to detail, excellent memory for detail, and the ability to focus for long periods on a narrow topic. These features are not just seen in the high-functioning individuals or those with Asperger Syndrome but are seen right across the autistic spectrum. Sometimes these positive aspects can result in remarkable talents.

We need to work to get the balance right, between using treatments for those aspects of autism that need treatment (such as the language difficulties, the epilepsy, the self-injury, the gut issues, or the learning difficulties) and encouraging those aspects of autism that do not need treatment and are special, so that the person can fulfil their potential. An image of a child as a demon in an ad campaign is equally unhelpful if we are to educate the public about autism. These issues, about language and imagery, are important if we take seriously the notion of neurodiversity, and wish to show respect towards those who are neurotypical and neuroatypical."

There is nothing I can add to this but my thanks to Professor Baron-Cohen for adding his voice to those of Professor Tony Attwood, Dr Mitzi Waltz, and renowned authors like Professor Roy Grinker, Donna Williams and Barbara Jacobs, who have all publicly demonstrated their objections to this unethical, misrepresentative and damaging ad.


Ed said...

Great! So good to hear that people are dealing with this issue and not overlooking the effect such words can have.

Take the Defeat out of DAN sounds like a good idea too.

Sharon McDaid said...

Yes Ed. We're not going to let up on this easily. It's so clearly wrong and avoidable.

Baron-Cohen has penned some powerful words here.

Anonymous said...

Well said.

Jean said...

Hi there
I saw this ad for the first time last night...I hadn't even heard about it before.
I'm really disappointed that autism is still perceived as something monstrous....and it will do great damage in our bid to educate the general population about autism.
Who made the ad? Do they have an address I can contact them at?

Anonymous said...

I can't watch the ad. I've seen it a couple of times and it makes me feel so angry I have to switch channels.

My beautiful daughter is autistic, not a demon inside.

Great post.
CJ xx

Peter Parkinson said...

The advert seems OK to me. Dan's story resonates with our family, and does not offend us in the sligntest.

My 10 year old autistic son has every support and advantage you could hope for.

He sometimes volunteers comments to the effect that there is something wrong with his brain - and some kind of mad/badneess driving the worst excesses of his behaviour.

These expressions of his difficulties seem accurate to me. You could resonably characterise my son as

1) a lovely cheerful boy
2) with a mental disability
3) and the occasional internal demon

I hope we cam help him reach the place Dan has reached.

Sharon McDaid said...

Responding here a long time after most of you commented so sorry.

@bullet, yes, it's a good qoute.

@Jean, the Ad Agency is Baby Creative. I'm sure you can google their details. You may want to complain to the Advertising Standards Authority too and I can send you a 5 minute guide to complaining if you want.

@Crystal Jigsaw, thanks and yes I have no doubt that there is nothing demonic about your daughter.

@The Rapper, you have perceived this ad differently to me. I have said before that I am not in the least concerned about being offended. I am concerned at the damaging misrepresentation of autism as something that is associated with fearsome, aggressive monsters, as an outer shell, and the way in which this adds to the mass of negative, prejudiced rhetoric about autism.

I would not consider telling you that you don't know your son and I'm sure your 3 point depiction of him would resonate with many others. But the monster was, to my mind and that of many others, not clearly intended to represent the boy's anger and troubles. It most readily could be seen as representing his disability. The language used reinforces my view of this depiction, with its focus on how he had to change himself. the web site slide show makes this point even more strongly; Dan was faulty, he had to change.

I hope more people however will have seen the ad as you have and that it will not have caused as much harm as I fear it has.