Back to drawing board for autism body

2013-06-03 11:01

Autism South Africa will go back to the drawing board after its controversial awareness campaign was hastily withdrawn last week, Autism South Africa (ASA) national director Jill Stacey has said.

“I felt sick to the stomach how this has gone,” said Stacey today.

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 it caused an outcry.

Now its website also features a special pop-up with “sincere apologies to all those who have been highly 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, which included 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.

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 has been 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 had wanted to create awareness of the complex condition because it did not have external signs, like a hearing aid or a calliper, which showed the world a person had a medical condition.

Because people with autism had heightened senses, they could be the children who dropped to the ground screaming when a shopping centre was very noisy. People around them called them badly behaved, and complained that their parents were not controlling them, said Stacey.

40% of people with autism could not speak, because part of their brain interpretation was missing, and people with autism also battled to understand other people’s emotions. So, when people spoke to them and they did not reply, people thought they were being rude.

They were “totally underestimated” by the public and in films they were depicted either as highly intelligent people, as in the movie Rain Man, or as people who were banging their heads, spinning, and rocking.

The rocking, explained Stacey, was to focus on something to block out the heightened sensory input of the world.

Withdrawing the advertisement had 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 had been withdrawn, except for one advertisement in a magazine that had already gone to print.

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

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

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