In this ad, an autistic teenager called Dan (it doesn't say whether or not that's his real name, but I will presume at least it refers to a real person) describes how he used to be "loud, obnoxious, and generally bad-tempered". He says his parents went to seek help for his autism because it was beginning to become "a pain in the bum", and also says that (before residential treatment) he "wasn't a great brother or son".
All this is accompanied by cartoonish drawings depicting Dan as being "controlled" by a monstrous creature, sometimes actually being the creature, and only becoming free of its grasp after being sent away to some sort of residential facility.
This ad has drawn tremendous criticism from autistic self-advocates and allies over the past few days. I can see why. After all, it seems to perpetuate some of the worst stereotypes about autistic people: that when we react to bullies it's because there's something wrong with us, that we disrupt families, etc. Not only that but one could look at the ad and get the impression that it is suggesting that autistic people can only ever become "civilized" via institutionalization.
But: at least according to some of the letters received in response to those who wrote to "Action for Children" in protest, the ad and the drawings in it were actually created by Dan. Blogger Sharon posts just such a response here. The excerpt quoted below stood out to me when I read it:
As a charity we're committed to giving vulnerable children and young people a voice about issues that affect them-and this approach was central to the way we designed and produced the ads, and why we feature real voices and real experiences and are highlighting the story of a child suffering with autism.
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.
If that's actually true -- that Dan himself produced the content of the ad -- that changes things, at least as far as I'm concerned.
It changes things because I think all autistic people -- regardless of whether or not I happen to agree with their viewpoint -- should be able to express their views through whichever media they prefer.
And given that I know what it's like to be told, "You don't really think that, you actually think this!", I definitely don't want what I write in response to the "Action for Children" ad in question to be a similar negation of what Dan thinks. Dan has every right to speak for himself and describe his own experiences in his own words, and to distribute those words as he sees fit.
So the following is addressed, not to "Action for Children" so much as to Dan, and to other autistic teenagers who may perchance come across this post.
I remember as a youngster (when I had no clue why I did things the way I did them, why I had "meltdowns" and "outbursts", why I "overreacted" to things, why I wanted to walk around with headphones on all the time, etc.) saying to people who asked any number of things I'd heard in passing or read in magazines, just so they'd leave me alone.
I also remember thinking, for a long time, that I was probably a really bad person. That I was inherently "selfish", lacking in self-control, rude, disrespectful, etc., etc. Even though I didn't feel like I was behaving intentionally in those ways, I didn't have any better explanations to offer (I essentially lost every argument I tried to engage in on the subject of my motivations), so I felt I had no choice but to accept those descriptors.
It wasn't until I was in my late teens that I started becoming remotely able to accurately describe anything about my internal processes, and not until my twenties that I became able to put things in anything resembling accurate context. That is, it took me ages to separate "words and phrases people have applied to me" from "words that actually pertain to how I experience reality".
Learning how to do this -- to put introspection into words -- has been a long and grueling process. It has involved not only discovering that I was probably not responsible for certain things I was always ashamed of (like being late to to learn certain self-care skills), but discovering the areas in which I can and should improve my character.
I don't know how Dan actually thinks of himself. I don't claim to, and there isn't nearly enough information to garner from the ad to give a clear picture.
But I can say (based on personal experience) that when a person grows up responding to their environment (and the people in it) in ways that constantly get called "strange", "rude", "overreacting", "random", "attention-seeking", "anti-social", and so on, they can definitely end up with some self-image issues.
Not only that, but they can develop a skewed sense of what it means to be "improving", "gaining skills", and so forth. I and several others on the spectrum I know have had the experience of being told that we seem "better" or "higher functioning" when we're actually worse off than we could be, and this has resulted in the development of various unhealthy behavior and thought patterns.
For people who already tend to struggle with body awareness and the ability to put feelings into words quickly, it can be very harmful indeed for us to be "trained not to react" to certain things outwardly -- because we still have all that stuff going on internally, and eventually it will come out whether we want it to or not.
(I remember even in college wondering what was going on when I would suddenly have the urge to bolt out of the classroom, and it wasn't until I learned about sensory overload -- and just cognitive overload in general -- that any of that started to make sense.)
So again, while I do not want to negate Dan's (or anyone else's) right to free speech, I do have to say that when I see the "monster" ad, I want to know if anyone's ever assured him that no, it's not okay for people to bully him.
That discrimination is not appropriate for any reason.
That while of course it's good to learn constructive ways of dealing with anger, it's okay to be angry.
That it's okay to say things like "No", "I don't know", "It's too loud in here", "I need a break", etc.
That needing to say these things, or communicate them in ways other than words if necessary, does not make you weak or badly behaved.
That having unusual body language or perceptual experiences is nothing to be ashamed of.
That being autistic never made you a lesser member of the family.
That you had every right to feel "betrayed" when your parents left you with strangers.
That being autistic does not, and did not ever, make you a "monster", nor anything other than a person, just as valid and valuable as any other person.
If you've never been told any of that, or taught any of that, you've been treated unethically.
And that is the real problem that needs to be addressed here.