You may have seen the ads posted in kiosks and on billboards. They read "We have your son. We are destroying his ability for social interaction and driving him into a life of complete isolation. It’s up to you now…Asperger's syndrome" or "We have your daughter. We are forcing her to throw up after every meal she eats. It’s only going to get worse…Bulimia." These disorders are portrayed as criminals, insinuating an evil villain has kidnapped the child.
According to the ads sponsor, the NYU Child Study Center, 12 million kids are "held hostage by a psychiatric disorder". These "ransom notes" were "designed as a provocative wake up to create awareness and spark dialogue about childhood psychiatric disorders, one of America’s last remaining silent public health epidemics."
Provocative they were - and they sparked lots of dialogue. The ads were not up very long before the chorus of disapproval, led by sixteen different autism organizations, began. Leaders of GRASP, MAAP, AHA and other groups sent a joint letter of protest to Dr. Koplewicz of the NYU Child Study Center - and spread word of the ad campaign to their members. Parents, adults on the autism spectrum, and advocacy groups kept up the barrage of e-mails, phone calls, and letters requesting NYU to stop the overly negative ads that portrayed children with the six disorders (autism, Aspergers, ADHD, depression, bulimia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) as captives of an evil Mafia.
The ads had shock value and brought these issues to center stage - but they were misleading. People with these impairments are not prisoners of an outside force, as the ads implied. Aspies don't live in complete isolation, and Autistics can interact socially and care for themselves - some quite well.
These scary threats with an attached label brought attention to the disorders - but they failed to explain what the disorders are, didn't offer diagnostic criteria, and didn't suggest a course of action. Will such doom and gloom make any parent acknowledge the possibility of a disorder in their beloved child?
I was born with a neurological impairment - not kidnapped by an evil Mafia. While I was growing up, there was no name for my disability - so I was called obnoxious, rude, crazy, irresponsible, and lazy. I was ostracized, bullied, tormented.
Most people don't understand the serious nature of disabilities. They lack personal experience with disability, and don't know what these conditions are. They can't comprehend how these disorders can apply to someone like me - someone who is intelligent and educated.
My lifelong neurological condition makes me a little odd, so I don't fit into this society. While I'm kind, caring, thoughtful, loyal, and dependable, my ability at social interaction is impaired. I look at things and don't see them. I look at faces and can't read them. I meet people and can't remember them. I try to be polite and am rude. I can't partake in a group conversation without either being rude and interrupting, or being quiet, reserved and shy.
My disability is an obstacle - but it is not insurmountable. By learning about it, I have learned to live with it. Yet I often end up on the outside looking in when people don't take the time to get to know me. Their lack of enlightenment leads to intolerance, rejection, or at the very least, indifference to the reality that disabled folks like me deal with daily. That's why many of us are unemployed or under-employed and have trouble making or keeping friends.
Naming the condition allows it to be defined and leads to appropriate treatment, enabling disabled individuals (and their parents, spouses, friends) learn to use their strengths to work around their problems, manage their lives and live in their communities. Although skills in areas of deficit may never reach a "normal" level, they can improve. Speech pragmatics can be taught. Occupational therapy can help with motor issues.
Instead of using scare tactics that portray these disabilities as evil, we need to help the world to see past our disabilities to our strengths, accept us, and accommodate our deficits. Neurotypicals live in a world that accommodates them. For example, many neurotypicals don't communicate well in writing - but I do. Instead, I have trouble communicating in real-time speech riddled with body language I can't interpret - something most people do naturally.
Disabilities have stigma. Not talking about them enhances that stigma. If we want people to take these disorders seriously, we'd better make sure they know the disorders are serious. However, we have enough problems without the negative attention these ads depict.
The protest succeeded. Thousands of letters and phone calls from parents, mental health professionals, educators, advocates, and others did the trick. After just two weeks, NYU agreed to pull the ads. “Obviously we hit a nerve that we didn’t want to hit," said Dr. Koplewicz. "We would like to move forward and harness the energy that this campaign has generated to work together so that we do not lose one more day in the lives of these children. We hope you will partner with us to bring the issues surrounding child and adolescent mental health to the top of America's agenda. Work with us as we fight to give children and their families equal access to health insurance, remove the stigma that the term "psychiatric disorder" so clearly still elicits, and, most importantly, support the drive to make research and science-based treatment a national priority."
While we want to draw attention to the disorders and educate society about these disabilities, we shouldn't portray the disabled as people possessed by an evil Mafia, or as tragic cases who need our pity. We should show disabled people in a positive light. This will help society to accommodate our differences, to accept us and see that, when accommodated, we can be valuable, contributing citizens in our communities.