Saturday, January 24, 2009

Monsters and changelings and charity advertising, oh my

Through the Politics of Autism email list, i was notified today of this new TV advert by the charity Action for Children (formerly the National Children's Home) - an advert which consists essentially of all the worst stereotypes about autistic people all rolled into one in the most blatant form...

For those who can't view the video, it's just under a minute long, and starts with a cartoon monster running through a sped-up, dystopian-looking urban landscape (blurred crowds of people, concrete walls, graffiti, litter, etc). The monster changes shape, but the figure of a small, forlorn-looking child can be clearly seen looking out from inside its mouth. A red line (which seems to represent the charity) takes the monster/child out of the urban landscape and into a green field, looking like typical English countryside with trees in the background - then literally tears the monster into pieces, leaving the child inside "free". The monster re-forms in the grass next to the boy, and starts to rise up - presumably to "eat" him again - but the boy tramples it into the ground. He then walks towards the camera, smiling, while the red line re-appears, twining around him before forming into the words "as long as it takes".

The voiceover, apparently in the voice of the real "Dan" (possibly not his real name*) - it sounds like an adolescent boy's voice, and there is (what sounds to me like, anyway) an "autistic inflection" to his voice - 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. My parents sought out help with my autism because it was becoming a pain in the bum. I went to an Action for Children school. I started feeling a bit more friendlier with other people. Thanks to the carers I was able to correct a lot of errors in my behaviour and become a better person. Well I feel a lot more confident thanks to them. I feel at peace with myself."

In addition to this, at Action for Children's website there is an image gallery called "Meet Dan", giving another narrative (again transcribed for those unable to view the images):

Hi, I'm Dan.

I thought that autism was like everything else I had. I felt it hard to listen. I was loud, obnoxious and generally bad-tempered.

As the outset of becoming a man came in, it started to get worse and I was just afraid of what was out there, afraid one day I'd leave my parents and I wouldn't be able to survive or anything like that. Survive independently.

And let's put it this way, I wasn't a great brother or son.

My parents found out about this place and I first started off a bit wobbly and well, to say the least, I felt hurt. I felt betrayed by being left there.

I thought no-one really cared. I sat alone in my room and just... I was really upset.

But then after a few months, about a year of being there, got a bit more steadier, started being a bit more friendlier with people.

People have said that Dan you're a lot more respectful, you can be a lot more honest and people have given me their trust, trust to do the right thing and trust to look after something.

My carers and my teacher, I think they're great company, great people. I feel homesick when I'm away from the school. Like part of me has been left there.

I feel a lot more confident now. I'm learning to cook and take care of myself. I feel a lot more at peace with myself.

This narrative is, to me (whether it's genuinely "Dan's" words or not) frankly disturbing. It reads like a narrative of Stockholm syndrome, and like the sort of "self-denunciations" common in totalitarian societies such as Catholic Europe in the time of the witch-burnings, Stalin's Russia or Mao's China. It seems to follow a twisted authoritarian logic in which perfectly understandable feelings about something done to one against one's will are described only so that they can be recanted, as the influence of the "higher authority" has led the person to "see the light" (and/or the "error of their ways"). Feelings of betrayal are trivialised as being "a bit wobbly". Dan's apparent "peace with himself" is reminiscent of Winston Smith at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, finally loving Big Brother.

"Dan's" life story is very much like mine, if you were to simplify mine to a similar extent - except that i was not diagnosed in childhood, and - perhaps as a consequence, perhaps not - luckily escaped such "intervention". I had the same fear of never becoming independent from my parents, and i certainly wasn't a "good" brother or son, at least according to how those roles are imposed within the "standard" Western patriarchal nuclear family. "Dan" was betrayed - he was passed like an unwanted buck, sold down the river. I too was betrayed by my parents as an adolescent - which I won't write about in detail here, but probably will eventually, when in more of an autobiographical mood - and left "home" at 16 with practically nothing in terms of either material possessions or life experience - but i did survive independently, because i had to. I could not have done if i had been divided, brainwashed and broken in the way that it looks like "Dan" was.

(And this is not to say that every autistic person, or indeed any non-autistic person, should be forced to "sink or swim" to "live independently", or that people shouldn't get support to learn the skills to live (more) independently, or that all such support is "brainwashing" - there is a profound difference between self-directed support - as Amanda Baggs describes here and here and the kind of "support" that is imposed on a person by others and seems to mainly consist of antagonistically trying to change that person into an entirely different kind of person - also, everyone in a developed society, even someone who lives on hir own and has a self-supporting income, is "dependent on others" - as Baggs points out here...)

*I can't help thinking that the name "Dan" was picked because of one or both of two significant acronyms - the curebie "charity" Destroy Autism Now!, which practices the exact same demonisation of autism and autistic people as portrayed in this advert, or the Disabled People's Direct Action Network - in the former case, "Dan" is the poster child for "anti-autism" intervention, in the second it's the "awful spectre" (a la Communist Manifesto) of disabled people fighting for acceptance and social change - and against charity - that is the "monster" to be defeated.

The imagery of this advertising campaign comes straight from the "changeling" or "demon possession" school of genocidal (by implication, if not necessarily intent) rhetoric - separating "the autism" from the autistic person, and portraying "it" as a separate entity, a "monster" that has "eaten" the child and needs to be destroyed in order to set the child free. This is straight out of horror fiction, and as far from reality as the beliefs in literal demon possession that still persist in some extreme Christian sects (and occasionally make the news when someone dies as a result of an "exorcism"). Portraying "autism" as a separate entity from the autistic person is, just by itself, breathtakingly offensive - saying, effectively, "This is the part of you which is acceptable, and this is the part of you which is unacceptable, and, whether you like it or not, we re going to kill the latter part of you". "Autism" is not some entity separate from autistic people, "it" is autistic people - or rather, it's a name given to a set of characteristics of people that are as inherent to those people as "non-autism" (or "allism") is to non-autistic people. To portray "autism" as a monster is to portray autistic people both as monsters and as passive, helpless "victims" of monsters, simultaneously (though the curebie charities seem to be unable to see that contradiction).

This sort of thing is covered very well at Autism Demonised (which seems to have been abandoned as an ongoing blog, but is still online as an archive), and by Amanda Baggs (again) in posts such as "What not changing us means", so i won't go to too great lengths about it... but, when it has been pointed out so many times, why is it still happening?

The image of the child trapped inside the "autism monster", passively looking out until the charity frees him and "empowers" him to kill the monster (is this promotion of suicide?) also draws on another common and deeply insulting stereotype, that of the child "trapped inside a shell", the idea that there is a non-autistic child somehow "inside" the autistic child and wanting to get out. This particular image tends to get used particularly by advocates of biomedical interventions to "cure" autism (including those who believe autism to be caused by vaccines... which i'm not even going to get into the complete falsehood of here), and again treats "autism" as something somehow separate from the person - as well as assuming that every autistic person really wants to become non-autistic - which is as arrogant and bigoted as assuming that every queer person really wants to become straight, or every black person really wants to become white. As Jim Sinclair wrote in "Don't Mourn For Us":

Autism isn't something a person has, or a "shell" that a person is trapped inside. There's no normal child hidden behind the autism. Autism is a way of being. It is pervasive; it colors every experience, every sensation, perception, thought, emotion, and encounter, every aspect of existence. It is not possible to separate the autism from the person--and if it were possible, the person you'd have left would not be the same person you started with.

This is important, so take a moment to consider it: Autism is a way of being. It is not possible to separate the person from the autism.

Therefore, when parents say,

"I wish my child did not have autism,"

what they're really saying is,

"I wish the autistic child I have did not exist, and I had a different (non-autistic) child instead."

Read that again. This is what we hear when you mourn over our existence. This is what we hear when you pray for a cure. This is what we know, when you tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.

Imagery like this, regardless of the (supposed or genuine) benevolence in its intent, says that we do not have the right to exist as the people we are.

One interesting thing is that Action for Children is not an "autism charity", or even a disability charity, per se - their website's "about" page says that they are "committed to helping the most vulnerable children and young people in the UK break through injustice, deprivation and inequality, so they can achieve their full potential", and that they are "the leading UK provider of family and community centres, children's services in rural areas, services for disabled children and their families, and services for young people leaving care." Their residential schools for autistic children are only one of several projects they have for children variously classified as "vulnerable". Yet, despite autism not being their central concern, they have picked up this narrative of autism from somewhere, and applied it unquestioningly, seemingly seeing it as entirely unproblematic.

This implies that the underlying values of autism charities which portray autism in this way are not unique to those organisations, but that there is something deeper-rooted in the concept of "charity" itself. I don't have space or time to do a full critique of charity here, but i think it's very telling that even a charity which doesn't have disabled people as its main focus so easily uses imagery that implies fundamentally changing people - without caring if that change is against their will - is not only acceptable but a positive social good - i think that says a lot about the fundamentally authoritarian and "Othering" nature of charity...

I'm gratified that the autism blogosphere has responded to this so quickly - there are already other posts about it at Action for Autism, The Voyage, The New Republic, and probably others - as well as a brilliant cartoon response at Asperger Square 8.

I'm not very good at writing "reasonable"-sounding letters of complaint to charities and the like, but if anyone else wants to i've been informed that the correct email address to send letters of complaint to is supporter.care@actionforchildren.org.uk. The autistic and disability rights movements successfully defeated the "Ransom Notes" ad campaign, which used similarly oppressive and hateful imagery, last year; we can defeat this as well!


Lindsay said...

Poor Dan!

What occurred to me, reading those words reminded me of how sensitive children are to being told they're evil. I'm reminded of fundamentalist religions that talk a lot about hell, and emphasize to children that hell is what they deserve.

Children believe that, because adults they trust are telling it to them.

Another thing it called to my mind was something Alice Miller describes: abused children begin to identify with their abusers, and believe the things their abusers tell them --- that they (the abusers) wouldn't have hit them (the kids) if they hadn't made them so mad, or wouldn't have raped them if they hadn't invited it. The kids are then put in the position of having to choose whether to believe that the adults are good, and mean the best for them, while they themselves are so bad as to deserve everything that happens to them, or to realize the adults do not have their best interests at heart. Since the latter realization is scary when you're physically and financially dependent on your abuser, they often sacrifice their relationships with themselves to preserve (the semblance of) a relationship with their abusers, at least until they're old enough to escape.

Lindsay said...


I too was betrayed by my parents as an adolescent ... and left "home" at 16 with practically nothing in terms of either material possessions or life experience

Holy crap! I can't imagine doing that, not with the level of self-sufficiency I possessed at sixteen. Not even with the level of self-sufficiency I possess now, at twenty-four. I get that you *learn* self-sufficiency from doing stuff like that, but that's still pretty hardcore.

So much of what's been good in my life --- and why I have been able to do more than many others, like go to college --- has had a lot to do with me having a close, supportive family. They may have made the difference between life and death, in making sure I got treated for my depression and always knew that I was loved and would be missed.

Socrates said...

Thanks for articulating what I was only able to growl incoherently...

Socrates said...

Just had a reply from Gary Day from Action for Children; I posted it up in the comments of my last post...

Sharon said...

Thanks for a great post Shiva.

My husband said the ad made him think of the scene in the epic TV series "Roots" when the man is whipped until gives in and calls himself the slave name Toby. I know it's an extreme comparison, but the way in which Dan seems to have been worn down into accepting how wrong he had been to be a troubled, bullied autistic teenager, how the bullies and stresses of life were all his own fault, it has some similarities in effect if not in execution.

I'm trying to spread our objections to this ad on Facebook.

Dani said...

Hello. I followed links from Sharon's blog to get here, and just wanted to introduce myself and wish you luck with this campaign. I read some of your stuff about inclusion and direct action and was nodding all the way through. I am a home educating parent/lesbian/activist living in Brighton. I share a blog with my partner, but she is the one who mostly writes on it. Hope it's OK if I add you to our sidebar and check in here every now and then, as I think your analysis is extremely interesting. All the best,


abfh said...

"Breathtakingly offensive" is exactly right.

I've just written a blog entry asking people who have contact information for Action for Children's major donors to post it. This is part of what was done to get the Ransom Notes ads withdrawn.

laurentius rex said...

I wouldnt necessarily put it down to Stockholm syndrome, more the result of growing up in a mainstream culture dominated by the negative portrayals of disability and being accustomed to the notion that pretending to be normal is an achievement.

That is why our autistic culture, and indeed disability culture in general is an important antidote to developing such self deprecating notions.

There is of course an ethical problem in negating someone elses words from the standpoint of implying that they have been co-erced into that mindset, after all isn't that what we are accused by our curebie adversaries of being too, not responsible for our own words, our autistic pride, because it is a mental abberation to think in that way and evidence of our "sickness"

Socrates said...

On the Action for Children's (AfC) Blog, one of their staff, Tom McLaren Webb writes:

Have a look at the ad before you see it on TV. It’s lovely!


Socrates said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lastcrazyhorn said...

Jesus. I say you've nailed it in one with the Stockholm Syndrome idea.

I just updated my blog about something else, but I'll see if I can't get a post in about this in the near future.

AnneC said...

Larry said: There is of course an ethical problem in negating someone elses words from the standpoint of implying that they have been co-erced into that mindset, after all isn't that what we are accused by our curebie adversaries of being too, not responsible for our own words, our autistic pride, because it is a mental abberation to think in that way and evidence of our "sickness"

Yes. This. I am disturbed by some of what is expressed in the ad (blogged about it here), but I've had trouble getting fully behind the backlash against it. The problems revealed BY the ad's content are pervasive and won't go away if the ad does.

Anonymous said...

Action for Children has made another ad that parents with MS find almost as horrifying: I haven't seen it (I'm in the US, so they don't have those ads here), but apparently it features a young girl who has to take care of her Mom because her Mom has MS. And Action for Children helps her. Parents are incensed because it implies that children automatically become carers for disabled parents (when they don't, or shouldn't have to).

The Facebook group focused on the MS parent ad is at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=51200447470

I suggest that the campaigns against both ads (the autism ad and the MS parent ad) would be more effective if they were to work in tandem. I also suggest that letters should focus NOT ONLY on removing the two offensive ads but ALSO on urging Action for Children to consult more closely with disability groups in the future for ALL relevant ads.

shiva said...

Lindsay: well, for what it's worth, at 16 i was probably "higher functioning" than i am now, at least in terms of concentration, memory and physical energy levels. And more naively optimistic. And still within a religious framework where i believed that my life was divinely planned and i was divinely protected...

It's hard to say whether i had more self-sufficiency skills then or now. Obviously i learned a lot (i *had* to learn a lot, very quickly - and by trial and error rather than acculturation, which contributed to a lot of my "unorthodox"/"counter-intuitive" (to most people) ways of doing things), but experiences in the intervening years have also damaged me in ways that have arguably removed many skills and internal resources i had then. Anyway, i probably will write more explicitly autobiographical posts at some point...

Larry: I see your point, and have been thinking about it. I think, to an extent, it's my ultra-cynicism that makes me strongly suspect they aren't telling the truth when they say that this is "Dan's" own words, or, if they are, then Dan's words have been edited highly selectively, to the extent that, even if "Dan" is a real person, it's hard to tell if the "Dan" portrayed here is in fact the same person as the "real" "Dan".

I think the internalised oppression that you're talking about is actually something very similar to Stockholm syndrome, but in a wider and more diffuse form. I have posts vaguely planned on internalised oppression at both individual and systemic levels, but need to re-read Fanon first.

Anne: I was planning to comment on your blog posts, but haven't got round to it yet, because far too much stuff has been getting in my way recently. Hopefully i'll get the chance within the next couple of days, tho.

Anonymous: Thanks for informing me. (I have seen the thread on the BBC Ouch board mentioning it as well, but not got round to giving proper attention to it). I've joined the Facebook groups for protesting both ads.

Sorry for the delay in replying to comments...

Socrates said...

I highly recommend Mike Stanton's analysis of the advertisements here

Shiva, if you've time please check out my reworked video of the advert here

You'll have to be quick though, they're getting taken down as quick as I can get them up...

Socrates said...

Forgot to say, I used a quote of yours in it.

Sister Wolf said...

What a horrible ad! Almost beyond belief. Why not ad ad campaign about schoolyard bullies and how they are allowed to torment other children with little or no consequence?

My teenager, who has Aspergers, is highly sensitive to any talk of 'curing' autism, and rightly so. It is inane and offensive to address autism this way.

Grrr. Thanks for helping me find a worthy direction for mu anger tonight.

sanabituranima said...

It's now been pulled from TV, but they still haven't taken it off their website or apologised.

air plane advertising said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
shiva said...

Well, that was amusing. A spammer was clearly trawling for any blog posts with titles containing the word "advertising". Do fuck off.

Socrates said...

Hanging's too good for 'em..

Anonymous said...

I perhaps shall keep silent