17 Jun 2009

Action for Children ad demonising autistic children cleared by ASA

In January, a major UK children's charity, Action for Children, released a television advertisement ostensibly about the help they had offered an autistic boy. It gave however, a shockingly inaccurate, damaging and offensive portrayal of autism and I and several others (listed here) wrote about the ad and contacted the charity with our concerns. Action for Children responded with a form letter apologising for upsetting us, as if that made it all OK, but ignoring all our valid explanations of why the ad was wrong. I created a Facebook group as a way of mobilising support and attention on the issue quickly and in a few weeks, over 2600 people had joined. The ad was supposed to have run for 3 weeks but was pulled after only 2.

In January, I complained to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) about the ad and on June 3rd finally received a letter with their adjudication. Unfortunately, they decided that the ad did not breach their codes. I was instructed not to publicise this decision until today when the ruling was made available on their web site.

I appreciate the time and effort the ASA has spent on this but I am very disappointed with their decision and also with the text of the ruling.

Action for Children responded to the ASA by saying that they "believed they had a responsibility to tell their stories through their [young people's] own eyes, not through the eyes of parents, carers or adults" and that "their organisation was committed to raising the issue that support was available through their advertising and campaigning, despite that being uncomfortable for some."

For the first time ever, I read that, " "Dan" (not his real name) was now an adult who was therefore able to give informed consent."
(my emphasis.)

The advertising company also responded:
"Clearcast said that, at pre-production stage, they had been informed that the stories told in the ads would be real case studies using children's own words. They considered the ads were extremely sensitively made and that the animation of the "monster" symbolised, in a child-like drawing, how a child felt when he felt out of control. They believed "Dan's" story was an uplifting one about how a boy who felt unable to deal with his autism could find help and support from Action for Children."
(my emphasis)

Does an advertising company just stating their opinion that the monstrous ad was "extremely sensitively made" make it so? Also, I dispute all these claims that the ad represents how a child/boy feels about his autism, since we now know that "Dan" is an adult.

I wrote to the ASA in January and posted my letter on this blog today. The ASA have summarised my extensive, reasonable and evidence based objections and those of the others thus:
    1. All the viewers and Autreach challenged whether the ad was offensive and distressing, particularly to autistic children and their families, because of its negative depiction of an autistic child as a monster.
    2. 31 viewers challenged whether the ad was offensive and misleading because it portrayed autism as a behavioural problem that needed to be corrected or because it implied that an autistic person chose to behave in the way they did and could modify their behaviour if they wished.
    3. 11 viewers challenged whether the ad was misleading because it suggested autism could be cured.
    4. Six viewers and Autreach challenged whether the ad condoned bullying because "Dan" appeared to believe it was his own fault that he was bullied.
    Objection 1
    Action for Children responded by talking again about the individual depicted in the ad, "his feelings of anger and frustration" and how "he overcame those feelings and was "more at peace" with himself. "

    They claim also to have "received supportive comments on the ad from senior government figures and members of the public."

    Well how nice, but thousands of people showed their disgust with the ad by electing to join a protest group, many others signed a petition against the ad, and 61 people and one autistic organisation were sufficiently bothered to complain to the ASA. Action for Children's income from grants and fees is "mostly derived from local authorities, health trusts and central government sources" according to their annual report and financial statements 2006/07 (see page 44 of the PDF link.) It is not too surprising therefore that senior government figures speak in the charity's favour. What is surprising is the insight gained into the views of the Rt Hon Hilary Armstrong MP, latterly the Minister for the Cabinet Office and for Social Exclusion on disabled self advocates.
    "She said she disagreed that the ad portrayed autism as dark or evil; that it was the effects of autism that had left "Dan" feeling angry and isolated but that, with the right kind of support, it was not nearly as bad for him; that "Dan" was not "cured" of autism but had learnt how to deal with it with sensitive help and support. She said she was aware of a section of the disability lobby that believed the behaviour of those with a disability should not be "interfered" with but she believed that view should be challenged. Even if wider society tolerated the behaviour "Dan" described, it was painful for him."
    (my emphasis)
    That line about the disability lobby deserves further investigation. I wonder from where Ms Armstrong derived this peculiar view, what evidence she has that it exists and what relevance this notion of hers has on the criticisms of the monster autism ad? I am disappointed that the ASA saw fit to use this in their adjudication as it implies that those of us who object to the demonisation of disability are some peculiar "lobby" that seek to leave disabled people to flounder.

    Objection 2
    Action for Children responded by saying
    ""Dan" had approved the concept and the drawings as how he had seen himself and what he had felt he needed help with. They said he felt strongly that he now had support to help him with aspects of his behaviour which previously he had not understood and which had created difficulties for him in his relationships."
    In the email I received from Gary Day on Jan25 this year, he wrote something else entirely. He said then,
    "Dan tells his own story in his own words, and he chose to name his condition, the drawings that you see were also drawn by Dan, the pictures depict how he saw himself before we as a charity got involved and helped Dan and his family."
    Why were they claiming at first that Dan drew the pictures when it was an advertising company all along. Why are they hiding behind this individual, as if Dan saying it makes it all right no matter how damaging it might be to all the other autistic people out there?

    They also quoted the principal of Dan's school saying that Dan used to have behavioural difficulties but with their support, he got over them. That's all great but I don't see the relevance to an ad that is damaging to public portrayals of autism for all the other autistic children in the UK.

    We learn also and I am not surprised, that the former chief executive of another major UK charity, Mencap, "supported the ad "because it raises awareness of some very complex issues that are frequently misunderstood by the general public" and who said awareness of the lack of services available needed to be raised."

    It's all about the awareness isn't it? It matters not, apparently, if that awareness causes more harm than help. An ad that makes more people "aware" of autism as a condition that makes you into an anti-social monster is supposed to be a good thing?

    Objection 3
    Another glut of false arguments are presented in the next bit of Action for Children's response to objection that the ad appeared to show Dan being cured (my points in red):
    " They said the ad showed "Dan" shedding his anger and frustration but referred to their comment above that he was still on the autistic spectrum at the end of the ad. This is not apparent to the average viewer. They said there was a wide range of opinion on almost all aspects of autism and that some groups disagreed with showing autism as any kind of problem for those diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, or their families. A total fabrication! Action for Children said they knew, however, that people and families who experienced autism also experienced problems and that they did not feel they could shy away from difficult or sensitive issues for fear of upsetting a small minority of people if they were making a case for the good of the children and young people with whom they worked. It is not fear of upsetting a minority that we have criticised, it is your misrepresentation of and damage to the lives of autistic people.

    Objection 4

    Their response to the bullying queries:
    Action for Children said the ad quoted "Dan" as saying "I used to lash out if somebody pushed my buttons or I wasn't able to do something." They said that contextualised his feelings of anger and frustration in that they were not just in response to other people - he was also generally frustrated with things around him. No one objects to Dan's feelings nor that he was helped to find ways to deal with them. They said the crucial aspect of Action for Children's support was that it allowed "Dan" to be "more at peace with himself" and less likely to respond with violence to things that perhaps did not warrant that response. Action for Children said they did not condone bullying or cruelty but that, nevertheless, children and young people found bullying was a common and profoundly damaging experience. I contend that the ad itself would cause more bullying of autistic young people as it portrays them so badly.
    It is worth noting that the opinions of the autism professionals who spoke out about the ad or against damaging portrayals of autism, are missing from the ASA's adjudication report.

    The ASA's Assessment
    Objection 1. Not upheld

    The ASA say:
    We considered, however, that they had taken pains to represent autism and the issues it raised in a way which, in their experience, was accurate and truthful, and that the message of the ad was positive. We concluded that the ad was unlikely to result in widespread offence or to have the effect of undermining the dignity of autistic children and their families through its depiction of autism.
    I feel that I demonstrated in my letter the ways in which the ad was inaccurate, untruthful and that it's message was damaging. The ad did result in widespread offense and did undermine the dignity of autistic people. That the ASA don't agree is disappointing, but it doesn't change the facts.

    Objection 2. Not upheld
    We noted the concerns expressed by the viewers and the points made in defence of the ad by Action for Children and Clearcast. We considered that, while views on how best to address the issues autism raised might differ, the story told in the ad centred on one person's - "Dan's" - experience; on the difficulties he considered he had experienced as a result of his behaviour and his reactions to his surroundings; his wish to address them and the difficulties he had experienced in doing so until he received help and support. We did not consider the ad suggested an autistic person chose to behave in the way they did or that they could simply choose to modify their behaviour if they wished. We considered the ad did, however, tell the story of how "Dan" had wanted to deal with his situation and how, with the right help and support, he was able to do so. We concluded that the ad was unlikely to cause offence or to mislead viewers by portraying autism as a behavioural problem or because it implied that an autistic person chose to behave in the way they did and could modify their behaviour if they wished.
    I disagree with this assessment. As I showed in my letter to them, the NAS have shown that 17% of people already think that autism is just bad behaviour. I expect that number would increase if those being surveyed were shown this ad first.

    Objection 3. Not upheld
    We considered that the story told in the ad centred on one person - "Dan's" - experience; on the difficulties he considered he had experienced as a result of his behaviour and his reactions to his surroundings; his wish to address them and the difficulties he had experienced in doing so until he received help and support. We considered that, just because issues or a situation could be addressed and supported, it did not necessarily follow that they were completely resolved or, in this case, "cured." We considered that views on how best to address the issues autism raised might differ and that, while the ad told of the experiences of how one person had been helped to address the issues they considered the condition raised for them, it did not suggest that the condition was one that could be cured or that "Dan" had been cured. We concluded that the ad was unlikely to mislead viewers by suggesting the condition could be cured.
    Making this all about a man called "Dan" and claiming that as it's just one man's opinion, and then presenting this as if it were actually the views of a child, does not exonerate the charity and the professional advertising company from culpability. This ad was expensive to produce and run and portrayed autism in the way Action for Children thought would best gain them publicity and support as the saviours of even tragic cases like Dan's.

    Objection 4. Not upheld
    We noted the concerns expressed by the viewers and the points made in defence of the ad by Action for Children and Clearcast. We noted that the ad referred to "Dan" being insulted and reacting to that by being physically violent to the person concerned. We considered that, while "Dan" regretted reacting with physical violence and wanted to be able to deal with the situation more appropriately, the ad did not suggest that "Dan" considered it was his own fault he was bullied or that bullying behaviour was acceptable. We concluded that the ad was unlikely to be understood as condoning bullying.
    I consider that the ad implies that autistic children are more likely to act aggressively than typically developing children. This is another misrepresentation as aggressive behaviour is not one of the diagnostic criteria for autism or Asperger's syndrome.

    Professor Tony Attwood, criticised this ad with specific reference to the bully message:

    "“I am very concerned that the advert gives a message that children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome are dangerous and potentially disturbed.

    When the child refers to “correct errors in my behaviour” this seems to imply ‘brain washing’ and a sense of guilt for how he behaved.
    Many of the behaviours I consider as coping mechanisms for the lack of understanding and respect from other people.
    He refers to reacting when people insult him. Those that insulted him need the treatment.”

    Professor Attwood was not quoted on the report.

    So Action for Children can celebrate that they have won. I had hoped that the advertising guidelines might provide some protection for autistic people from the disturbing way Action for Children chose to portray them. But that has not happened. Action for Children must be proud of their victory, their right to show autistic children as monsters thrashing around terrifying the population has been upheld. Well done to them.


    Sharon McDaid said...

    Can I just give a shout out to the Action for Children staff reading this after following the Autism Hub twitter feed. Do'ya feel proud today?

    Russ West said...

    Maybe it's time to start working with them to portray an accurate and comprehensive statement of what autism is for those who have it - if they truely want to give a voice to those with autism - let them speak for themselves in a way they can be understood.

    As a PR photojournalist and communications person I know the marketing angle they are trying to use to get people to support them financialy, however, I think that to use missleading statements, or should I say to use someone's words about their autism which missleads people into thinking ALL autistic children are like this (and possibly adults too) is a faulted way of fundraising. I work hard trying to champion the following statement about people with Learning Disabilities, mental health issues, dual diagnosis and borderline or personality disorders - it is this:

    Diversity - YES
    Stigma - NO

    It's time to change how we perceive people varying abilities and disabilities... It's time to change societies views about those people who are not seen by society as a whole as being part of it and the valuable contributions thay make to our lives... The cahrities that claim they represent and work for 170,000 people with autism should know their client base... it appears they have had 61 complaints about their advert - that's 61 too many.

    Like I said it's time to work with them to correct the error, I encourage everyone to write to them, get them working for EVERYONE with this condition - after all that's what they say they do...

    Anonymous said...

    Disappointing. Action for Children have lost support from a few churches over this, at any rate.

    Amama said...

    @ Russ West: >Maybe it's time to start working with them to portray an accurate and comprehensive statement of what autism is for those who have it - if they truely want to give a voice to those with autism - let them speak for themselves in a way they can be understood.< Have you ever thought of using your PR photojournalist & communications skills to enable that to happen? You could help Autistic people to have the strong voice & presence we need in outer world... just a thought!

    Elaine Caul said...

    Being Aspie and the older sis of a 12 year old Autistic boy, I think it is appalling the way AFC got away with showing this ad.

    But I suppose that is the general public's attitude towards ASDs. We are all 'monsters' simply because charities like AFC say so.

    A friend of mine was unfairly dismissed from his job recently. He was working in a Cafe. He has AS and endured endless bullying and victimisation from his work colleagues for 3 years. Basically, a customer started acting really aggressively towards him. He tried to calm the situation, which he is more than capable of doing without losing his temper.

    However, one of his work colleagues immediately assumed HE was responsible for being 'rude' to this customer. She immediately walked over and told the customer: 'I'm sorry for D's behaviour, but he SUFFERS from Asperger's!'
    No, he does NOT suffer from it. He suffers from ignorance.
    During his 3 years working at this cafe, D had a clean record. However, this colleague in particular constantly referred to D's Aspie-ness as a 'disease'. And he was sacked after the 'altercation' with the customer, even though he did nothing wrong. SHE breached his confidentiality.

    D then took his case to the Labour Court. Unfortunately, the decision to sack him was upheld. This was despite the fact that the store manager actually admitted in court that he DIDN'T KNOW what AS is and NOT once in 3 years had he ever sat down with D, to discuss how his AS affected him.

    Of course, I can't actually judge the situation, since I wasn't there. I suppose the general assumption is that Autistic people can't speak for themselves, therefore we 'need' charities like AFC, to do the speaking for us. If we are 'monsters' it is because we have NEVER been properly understood. Sure 'Dan' acts like a 'monster', but has anyone asked why? Maybe because he has never been taught how to communicate and assert HIS needs appropriately. Maybe because he isn't accepted or he has sensory issues.
    I know the best 'cure' for autism is acceptance and encouraging us to use our autism in a way that benefits us and society.

    Anonymous said...

    Hi Sharon

    Thanks for your shout out and yes I do feel proud to work for an organistion that does it's very best to help children, young people and there families, maybe if you were to speak to someone that the charity had helped.

    Or were you being sarcastic

    P.s my son has Aspergers, I know what it's like from a parents point of view

    Barbara said...

    Much as expected, Sharon. Disgraceful, nevertheless, and more lies heaped on lies. But then PR is a lies business.

    Sharon McDaid said...

    @Russ West, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I agree that they took a marketing decision to use autism as a hook to make them look magnanimous and useful. They used Dan, and now put all the blame on him. They make out that the ad can't be criticised as an actual autistic man (though portrayed as a child) said it. They have not given a voice to autistic people, as they have ignored the many autistic people who write to them when the ad was released.

    Your motto works. There is no excuse to crush dignity. Yes 61 actual complaints to the ASA is too many, but many more sent the charity emails and have expressed their hurt and objections in other ways. I don't think there is any pint in trying to engage with that charity any more. It's shocking that they fought this and used blatant lies about disability self advocates especially since AfC run schools for autistic children. They just don't care.

    @Brainduck, yes isn't it. Would you be able to share any more information on the church's views? IS this the Methodist church which founded the charity now known as AfC?

    @Amama, it would be great if people like Russ with his skills and insights could get better portrayals out there. Thanks for writing.

    @3laine, nice to hear from you and I hope your studies have been going well.

    What you say shows the danger of these ads. People will be more inclined to think badly of autistic people because of ads like this. this is awareness we can all do without.

    Your friend's story is so terrible. What a shame he didn't get justice at the court.

    Yes Dan did need to learn better ways to deal with the difficulties of life and the school no doubt helped. But it's how that was portrayed that was so wrong. And yes, people need to be more accepting that not everyone in the world acts and thinks the same way, and to be a bit more sensitive when someone has say, sensory issues.

    @Anon, it's interesting that you are the 1st person to tell me how AfC helped them but I have heard lots of stories of how AfC were dismissive of their autistic children's needs. Do you really feel proud of your employer's victory over the dignity of autistic people like your son?

    @Barbara, it is what I expected but it's still a disappointment. The whole thing stinks.

    Barbara said...

    @Barbara, it is what I expected but it's still a disappointment. The whole thing stinks.

    Sharon, believe me, we will win. I promise you that.

    It's what my life's about.

    We will win.