17 Jun 2009

My Letter to the ASA about Action for Children monster ad

Now that the ASA have ruled that the monster ad did not breach their code of practise, I will publish in full the letter I submitted about the ad. I will shortly publish my view on the ruling and Action for Children's response.


The Complaints Reception Team
Advertising Standards Authority
Mid City Place
71 High Holborn

31 January 2009

Dear Sir or Madam,

While I commend the work Action for Children does as a charity, and have no doubt of their good intentions, I object to this campaign and contend that it breaches the CAP Code for TV advertising, section 11.3.4, relating to ethical responsibility, in the following ways.

11.3.4(b) The problem AFC seeks aid for is exaggerated by the use of highly emotive imagery. A cartoon monster is shown jumping around in an urban landscape, attacking some accelerated film footage of real people. As this image plays a boy's voice-over says, "I used to lash out if something pushed my buttons or I wasn’t able to do something. Things that wound me up were if they’d insulted me I would physically hurt that young person." Then we see that the monster has a sad looking normal boy trapped inside, looking out through its mouth. Straight after that image is shown, the boy says the words "My parents sought out help with my autism because it was becoming a pain in the bum."

[17/06/09 edit; It turns out that he actually said, it was "a pain for them", but it was very unclear and no one from AfC saw fit to correct the transcripts any of us had made on our blogs even though they spent long enough reading them from their offices in Doncaster.]

This exaggerates the problems autism causes and implies that autism is making the boy a monster. It connects autism with aggressive, anti-social, monster-like behaviour.

My 10 year old daughter said on viewing the ad, "It's showing the boy stuck inside a monster and that's autism and then he goes away to a school and he comes out of the monster and he's not autistic any more. But that's not right, Duncan (her autistic little brother) isn't a monster. He's a human being."

11.3.4(c) The AFC ad does not respect the dignity of vulnerable children and young people who are the very people AFC are supposed to help. On the morning of Sunday 25th January 2009 I created social networking group on www.facebook.com in order to campaign against this advertisement. Between the time of its opening and the time I am writing this letter (the evening of Saturday 31st January 2009), 940 individuals have read my reasons for starting the group, and have decided to support my protest by signing up to the group. The group can be viewed here:

Professor Roy Grinker, author of "Unstrange minds: Remapping the World of Autism" has joined this group. There is another renowned autism author and at least one distinguished FRS scientist as well as many autistic people, and others who have autistic family members and friends. Others joined because they care about the human rights and dignity of all people including those with autism.

AFC replied to the dozens of complaints they have received about the advertisement by sending everyone form letters which request that we take our concerns to the ASA. In some of their responses, AFC defend the ad by saying that it uses words and drawings Dan produced to describe himself. In other responses they say that Dan "approved" the ads.

But an advertising company created this ad, employing both marketing professionals and art direction staff. This ad is not, no matter how AFC have tried to spin it, the self-published, direct telling of one child's experiences. This ad shows how AFC choose to portray autism by using Dan's story, with his poor self image and worries. They have used the troubles and fears of a vulnerable child to generate pity and fear, to make them appear to be heroic in saving even tragic cases like Dan. They cannot claim that they were merely giving him a voice.

The harm to other vulnerable young people just like Dan, is too great to be ignored. There is a great deal of misinformation in the public sphere about autism. The National Autistic Society carried out studies recently about public attitudes to and understanding of autism:


They uncovered a great deal of misinformation. For example, 17% of those surveyed mistakenly thought that some children with autism don’t have a disability, they’re just badly behaved. Advertisements like this one could well cause that number to increase as it implies that Dan merely had to learn to control his behaviour. The voice-over reinforces this view, "Thanks to the carers I was able to correct a lot of errors in my behaviour and become a better person." There is no mention of the effects of outside influences on the child's behaviour, or the difficulty for any child approaching the teen years in dealing with bullies ("if something pushed my buttons", "if they’d insulted me") and the pressures of growing up. There is no mention of the extra difficulties in dealing with these pressures for a child with a disability that affects communication skills, sensory precessing, and who can find certain social situations more difficult than his non-autistic peers.

Aggressive behaviour is not one of the diagnostic criteria for autism or Asperger's syndrome. The ad implies that autistic children are more likely to act aggressively than typically developing children. This is another misrepresentation.

Professor Tony Attwood, internationally respected researcher and expert on Asperger's syndrome, recently criticised this ad;

"“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.”

The ad implied that autism was a monster trapping Dan, and after time and help from AFC, he was able to (according to the ad's imagery) climb out of this monster, into the calm green field and crush the monster with his foot when it threatened to devour him once more. It implies that Dan is no longer autistic and is much better off that way.

There has long been a view among some people, of autism as a shell which traps a "real", non-autistic children inside. It was first used by Bruno Bettleheim who described the autistic child as an "Empty Fortress" and was of the (now utterly discredited) opinion that "refrigerator mothers" cause their children to "act" autistic as a defence mechanism. This imagery is still used by those who emphasise a model of autism intervention of cure and prevention instead of helping those living with the condition to thrive. Some unscrupulous people make money by selling false therapies to desperate parents, who are even now, led to believe that they can release their precious child from the clutches of the "autism-monster". Parents of recently diagnosed children may see this advertisement and worry unnecessarily about their children and may be more willing to fall for the false promises of those selling dangerous and expensive, fake autism "treatments." The National Autistic Society study showed that 56% of their respondents thought that autism was curable. This ad helps enforce this discredited theory of autism.

11.3.4(d) That 2000 (and rising) people have joined a Facebook group protesting the ad, and that so many have left messages expressing their disappointment, worry and hurt at the ads on AFC's YouTube page, on personal blogs, parent and disability forums and that so many have already written to AFC to complain, shows that this ad has aroused strong feelings and caused great distress.

The representation of autism by the media is a very sensitive area, especially coming so soon after a great deal of public discourse about the possibility of prenatal screening for autism.

The AFC campaign isn't merely offensive. It also misrepresents autism, portraying it as an external monster to be defeated. It will damage the self esteem of young autistic people in particular to see their autism, an integral part of themselves, depicted as monster trapping them, as something to be defeated. They will see themselves depicted as frightening beings whom others fear. There are many testimonials from parents saying that their autistic children were disturbed by the ad. There are many descriptions of the hurt the ad has caused to older autistic people too. One woman tells of her 20 year old daughter who is seeking work and fears that the ad may make her less employable to employers thinking she could be aggressive and lack control.

This ad contributes to the mass of misinformation and prejudiced, negative rhetoric about autism in the media and wider society. One autistic adult wrote to me about the effect this has, that such rhetoric will, "contribute to the widespread social construction of prejudice, and how that prejudice, in the clueless hands of the general public, endlessly pelts us and pounds on us, every minute of every day, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after spirit-crushing year... "

AFC seem to have opted to jump on the autism bandwagon, thinking that autism always gets the media interest they seek, given its prominence in captivating articles like those on the MMR and the recent high profile debate on prenatal screening. AFC have used the problems of autistic children to raise their profile, but have misrepresented the condition. This is utterly unethical. Every airing of the ad furthers the potential for damage.

To end, I would like to use the words of AFC themselves. In a report produced by the charity, they say (regarding the current government's policies):
"With regard to younger children, the emphasis has been on children’s vulnerability and support for parents. With respect to older children, there has been a tendency to demonise them and to fail to see young
people’s viewpoints, which is at odds with ministers’ avowed wishes in other contexts to listen to and be seen with young people."

Many young people have written to AFC, and have written on my Facebook group and on blogs and forums about how they fear this makes them appear to the public. Others have expressed their dismay and fears about this ad to their parents who have signed on their behalf. Other allies have signed because they object to the unethical depiction of autism and their concerns for the ill effects this ad is having on the people it seeks to help.

AFC know that to demonise children is wrong, that to fail to see their viewpoints is wrong.

I would like to see AFC withdraw this advertisement, apologise to the autistic community and commit to seek the input of autistic-run advocacy organizations, and well informed mainstream autism organisations like the National Autistic Society in future advertising and fundraising efforts.

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