There is so much wrong with the #KiehlsxAutismSpeaks campaign that I hardly know where to begin. The campaign has two components, the first is a consumer component which donates a portion of sales to Autism Speaks. The second is a social media campaign which raises money based on the number of shares a video featuring Matthew McConaughey gets on Twitter and Instagram.
There are issues with the messaging of the ad. There are issues with the methodology of the campaign self. There are issues with the fact that the campaign is linked to Autism Speaks which is a very controversial organization within the autistic community.
The ad itself falls into the trap of so many public charity fundraisers for disability. It utilizes problematic language by defaulting to person first language when autistic people tend to prefer identity first language. There is also the focus on autistic children. This is an issue for a couple of reasons one of which ties into the complex connection to Autism Speaks. The other is simply the fact that so many of these campaigns focus on disabled children and tend to forget that those children grow up. This creates a real and serious service gap which tends to leave disabled adults without resources.
The connection with Autism Speaks makes it worse because as a result of their history of minimizing not only the experiences of but even the reality of autistic women, there is a real trend of late diagnosis or non-diagnosis. This means there are countless autistic women who did not have the benefit of services as children and who have to learn to navigate an autism diagnosis as adults with little or no support.
Autism Speaks did this as a result of the historical and inaccurate belief that autism is more common in boys. They created an entire campaign around this misconception. One of their best-known campaigns is likely the Light It Up Blue campaign which was designed specifically to recognize that false reality. Blue was meant to recognize that boys were more likely to be autistic. Despite new and continued research showing that women are systemically underdiagnosed with autism, the campaign continues. Also, focusing on autistic children alone ignores the generations of women who were not diagnosed because autism was not considered to be an option.
Charities, in general, have a tendency to focus on children because they are perceived to be more palatable than their adult counterparts. This has long term consequences in major gaps in access to services and resources by disabled adults. It also leaves a cultural gap where disabled adults simply don’t appear and are thus not expected to actually show up in society.
So charitable giving is often fraught with problematic messaging in general. Autism Speaks however, is more problematic than most. This is because it is both one of the largest “autism advocacy” organizations and it is also deeply unpopular with autistic people to the point that some have labelled it a hate group. The Caffeinated Autistic has a pretty good run down of many of the serious concerns that autistic people have regarding Autism Speaks.
Some of the primary concerns include the generally low percentage of funds (only 3%) that actually get spent annually on actual services for autistic people and their families. So, the Kiehl’s video campaign if it reaches the maximum 200,000 shares will only really amount to $6,000 going to actually helping autistic people. 63% of Autism Speaks’ budget is spent on fundraising and raising awareness.
The kind of awareness that Autism Speaks has raised in the past is deeply troubling. They released a video which I really demonized autistic people and suggested that they invariably ruined the lives of their families. The video tries to make the distinction between autistic people and autism but in reality, autism is not something that is or can be separated from the person.
*video transcript at the end of this post
They also produced a documentary called Autism Every Day (link is not to the video but there is a link to the video in this article) which featured a clip of a woman describing her fantasies about killing herself and her autistic child while that child was in the room.
Autism Speaks has a track record of promoting dehumanizing narratives around autism. They also have a history of not having any actually autistic people in positions of authority within the organization (this has changed somewhat recently). They have made some cosmetic changes to their messaging recently but they still largely benefit from their old messaging and they do not challenge or cut ties with individuals and organizations which fundraise and “raise awareness” on their behalf (I wrote about this previously).
So what kind of awareness is this campaign actually raising? I would argue none at all. We are well past the point of being able to count simply acknowledging the existence of autism and autistic people as meaningful awareness. People know that we exist. What we need now is for people to actually engage with creating a culture and a society that actually makes our lives better. As autistic writer, Sarah Luterman points out that Kiehl’s describes their special face cream (which is just a rebranded version of a product they already offered) as “a daily face moisturizer to promote autism awareness.” Luterman then astutely points out “[t]he site does not elaborate how exactly a face moisturizer would promote awareness of anything.”
Hiding behind a celebrity face and making the fundraiser so effortless also endorses uncritical engagement with a very problematic charity. People simply assume that the charity is good because a cosmetics brand and Matthew McConaughey told them so. It does not suggest that they actually engage personally with Autism Speaks in any way or engage with autistic people themselves. It may be a very effective way to raise money but it is a particularly useless way to raise awareness and it is a potentially harmful way to raise awareness. It emboldens an organization which is unpopular with the people it purports to speak for. It is infinitely ironic that an organization which calls itself Autism Speaks has spent the vast majority of its existence speaking over and silencing actual autistic people. In fact, we have our own organizations and engage in self-advocacy. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network and the Autism Women’s Network are too great examples of organizations run by autistic people for autistic people.
This campaign tells people that they can benefit a marginalized group simply by buying something. Not through any actual engagement with that group. Which reinforces ideas of separateness and the continued proliferation of false ideas around autism and autistic people.
It’s a fundamentally dehumanizing use of a saviour narrative which positions autistic people as a group needing to be saved by nonautistic people.
It’s also that truly ineffective approach where people buy something and it supposedly helps a charity. Which presents a very self-serving narrative of solidarity. “Buy a face cream that you’ll benefit from and help someone without doing anything else” That sort of campaigning particularly when trying to help a marginalized group of people is particularly ineffective because for meaningful change to occur in raising the status of an oppressed group actual engagement is needed. This is the opposite of that. This tells people that they can help a marginalized group at a distance without any meaningful action. It maintains the “othering” of autistic people.
Many autistic people have spoken out of about the campaign particularly on Twitter where the Matthew McConaughey video is being widely shared. There is even a change.org petition asking Kiehl’s to reconsider its partnership with Autism Speaks. I would add my voice to those autistic people who are asking you not to support this campaign or Autism Speaks in general.
This kind of ad campaign doesn’t raise awareness so much as it reinforces the “otherness” of autistic people. It suggests that non-autistic people can be the helpers and saviours of autistic people simply by buying face cream or sharing a video on Twitter or Instagram. It fundamentally does not in any meaningful way raise awareness about autism or autistic people.
I would ask that people take meaningful steps to creating a culture and society that is accessible to autistic people and which does not require us to be either cute children or threats to the happiness of everyone around us.
If you want to actually help autistic people and to actually be aware of us, I would suggest the following autistic activists on Twitter (just search for #ActuallyAutistic), reading autistic writers and actively avoiding and speaking out against campaigns which supports harmful organizations and which present sharing the video and buying face cream as meaningful engagement.
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*transcript courtesy of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network
I am autism.
I’m visible in your children, but if I can help it, I am invisible to you until it’s too late.
I know where you live.
And guess what? I live there too.
I hover around all of you.
I know no color barrier, no religion, no morality, no currency.
I speak your language fluently.
And with every voice I take away, I acquire yet another language.
I work very quickly.
I work faster than pediatric aids, cancer, and diabetes combined
And if you’re happily married, I will make sure that your marriage fails.
Your money will fall into my hands, and I will bankrupt you for my own self-gain.
I don’t sleep, so I make sure you don’t either.
I will make it virtually impossible for your family to easily attend a temple, birthday party, or public park without a struggle, without embarrassment, without pain.
You have no cure for me.
Your scientists don’t have the resources, and I relish their desperation. Your neighbors are happier to pretend that I don’t exist—of course, until it’s their child.
I am autism. I have no interest in right or wrong. I derive great pleasure out of your loneliness.
I will fight to take away your hope. I will plot to rob you of your children and your dreams. I will make sure that every day you wake up you will cry, wondering who will take care of my child after I die?
And the truth is, I am still winning, and you are scared. And you should be.
I am autism. You ignored me. That was a mistake.
And to autism I say:
I am a father, a mother, a grandparent, a brother, a sister.
We will spend every waking hour trying to weaken you.
We don’t need sleep because we will not rest until you do.
Family can be much stronger than autism ever anticipated, and we will not be intimidated by you, nor will the love and strength of my community.
I am a parent riding toward you, and you can push me off this horse time and time again, but I will get up, climb back on, and ride on with the message.
Autism, you forget who we are. You forget who you are dealing with. You forget the spirit of mothers, and daughters, and fathers and sons.
We are Qatar. We are the United Kingdom. We are the United States. We are China. We are Argentina. We are Russia. We are the Eurpoean Union. We are the United Nations.
We are coming together in all climates. We call on all faiths. We search with technology and voodoo and prayer and herbs and genetic studies and a growing awareness you never anticipated.
We have had challenges, but we are the best when overcoming them. We speak the only language that matters: love for our children.
Our capacity to love is greater than your capacity to overwhelm.
Autism is naïve. You are alone. We are a community of warriors. We have a voice.
You think because some of our children cannot speak, we cannot hear them? That is autism’s weakness.
You think that because my child lives behind a wall, I am afraid to knock it down with my bare hands?
You have not properly been introduced to this community of parents and grandparents, of siblings and friends and schoolteachers and therapists and pediatricians and scientists.
Autism, if you are not scared, you should be.
When you came for my child, you forgot: you came for me.
Autism, are you listening?