Updated 03 June 2013

Autism SA withdraws controversial campaign

Autism South Africa will go back to the drawing board after its controversial awareness campaign was withdrawn last week.

Autism South Africa will go back to the drawing board after its controversial awareness campaign was hastily withdrawn last week, ASA national director Jill Stacey said on Monday.

"I feel sick to the stomach about how this has gone," said Stacey.

The organisation was rounded on by carers of people with autism and forced to completely withdraw its campaign last week.

The first leg of the campaign featured lamp post posters with statements such as "Autism is for violent people", and caused an outcry. Now its website also features a special pop-up with "sincere apologies to all those who have been offended".

Stacey said the myths they used to attract attention were based on information gleaned from research on how the "man in the street" sees autism. The next stage of the campaign would have been to move on to the positive side of the campaign, including a television advertisement, where these myths would be dispelled.

"So few people out there know what autism is. If it doesn't affect them they don't read about it," she said.

‘Shock people into awareness’

She explained that ASA's creative company believed that the organisation needed to shock people to make them read about autism, as previous softer campaigns had not been successful in raising awareness.

She had had her doubts about the campaign, she said, believing that the message directing people to ASA's website should have been at least a third the size of the poster, so that people could see that the myth was wrong.

"The big mistake was that the 'no this is not the truth' message was out of proportion," said Stacey.

Before the campaign started, ASA informed members of their intentions.

They wanted to create awareness of the complex condition because it does not have external signs, like a hearing aid or a calliper, which shows the world that the person has a medical condition. Because people with autism have heightened senses, they may be for instance the children who drop to the ground screaming in a very noisy shopping centre. People around them then call them badly behaved, and complain that their parents cannot control them, said Stacey.

People with autism ‘underestimated’ by the public

Forty percent of people with autism cannot speak, because part of their brain's interpretation ability is missing, and people with autism also battle to understand other people's emotions. So, when people speak to them and they do not reply, they are interpreted as being rude.

They are "totally underestimated" by the public and in films they are depicted either as highly intelligent people, as in "Rain Man", or as people who bang their heads, spin, and rock. The rocking, explains Stacey, is to focus on something in order to block out the heightened sensory input of the world.

Withdrawing the advertisement did not cost the organisation money because the creative agency, House of Brave, and two other companies that assisted Mediacom and Wetpaint donated all their services, including billboards and artwork.

Everything was withdrawn, except for one advertisement in a magazine that had already gone to print.

Stacey said that besides the complaints, she had also received some messages of support for what the campaign was trying to achieve.

In the meantime, ASA and the agency will regroup and plan the way ahead.




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