Well Being

Kidnapped by Autism: Making Noise about “Ransom Notes”

By  | 

A number of readers expressed at least disagreement and often outrage at the New York University Child Study Center soon to be launched Ransom Notes public awareness campaign, whose message is that Millions Of Children [are] Held Hostage By Psychiatric Disorders. Billboards and advertisements in magazines (including New York Magazine, Newsweek, Parents, Education Update and Mental Health News) and in kiosks will start appearing in January. The “Ransom Notes” campaign is provided pro bono by BBDO, a worldwide advertising agency network with headquarters in New York—-though, as I wrote in a previous post, the shock value ads—which are designed to look like an actual ransom note and signed “Autism” or “Asperger Syndrome” or “ADHD”—are designed to startle, alarm, threaten, and get people to do something (hand over the ransom, er, donation, is my assumption).

How we talk about autism—how we talk about autistic persons—directly impacts on how the public, how people, think about autism, and how they perceive and act towards autistic persons. Implying that an autistic child is like a child who has been kidnapped—-is a child who has been kidnapped—recalls older stereotypes of autistic children as “caught” and “imprisoned” in an “autistic shell,” and their real (normal) self “trapped” inside. It is not too hard to find references to autistic children that use such language, as in this commencement speech presented by Autism Speaks co-founder Suzanne Wright on May 15, 2007: 

There is a beautiful little boy in my family who has been kidnapped by autism.

I am writing a letter to send to the Director of the NYU Child Study Center, Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz. The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network has sent out a call for letters, along with contact information. 

This campaign, which is expecting over 700 million impressions over the next four months, is highly inaccurate and spreads classic stereotypes against individuals with disabilities. There are a number of problems with the advertising campaign:

* The ads stigmatize people with disabilities by suggesting that we are a ‘detriment to ourselves and those around us.'

* The ads make people with disabilities feel shame and embarrassment.

* The ads contain inaccurate information: For example, while people with diagnoses of autism and Asperger's often have difficulty with some forms of social interaction, we are not incapable of it and can succeed and thrive on our own terms when supported, accepted and included for who we are.

* The ads suggest that our true selves have been “kidnapped” by terrible “diseases” and that we need urgent treatment to become normal again. This “stolen child” stereotype has been associated with horrible abuses against individuals with disabilities, ranging from social cruelty to beating, electric shock and even murder.

* The ads do not inspire parents to bring struggling children to professionals for diagnosis and appropriate treatment but instead just make parents terrified that their children are doomed and destined to have horrible, sad lives.

* The ads convey an incomplete and inaccurate picture of the diagnoses they purport to represent; they fail to show the many strengths and abilities of the individuals with those diagnoses. They fail to show the opportunities for support, education and resources that the NYU Child Study Center should be offering to parents and individuals with disabilities.

It is extremely important that we let the NYU Child Study Center know that its language is unacceptable and encourage them to pull the campaign before it does irreparable damage to people with disabilities everywhere. As an organization of adults and youth on the autism spectrum, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network is working closely with self-advocates, parents, professionals and other concerned citizens from throughout the disability community to implement an organized response. However, our time is short and we need you to make your voice heard immediately. Below you will find contact information for the NYU Child Study Center, the director of the NYU Med Center and a number of businesses who have donated time, ad space or other resources to the campaign. We've provided a sample template for your letters but please feel free to substitute your own words and to call the Center and their supporters over the phone. If you use our template, please make sure to delete the sections you will not be using within the bold-bracketed components. Once again, the need for action on this is immediate, so please write and/or call now.

Thank you all for your efforts and please feel free to pass along this message to other individuals and groups. We will keep you informed and we ask that you please e-mail any responses you receive to info@autisticadvocacy.org so we can coordinate our response to this offensive advertising campaign.

Best,Ari Ne'eman

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, President



Sample Letter Template:

Dear [Dr. Koplewicz/Van Wagner Communications/BBDO]:

I am writing to express concern about the NYU Child Study Center's recent “Ransom Notes” campaign. Your statements about people on the autism spectrum and with other disabilities are inaccurate and offensive to me as [an individual with a disability/as a family member of an individual with a disability/as someone interested in seeing respect for individuals with disabilities] and as a concerned citizen. I urge you to pull the advertising campaign immediately from all venues, ranging from billboards and kiosks to print and online advertisements, and to take steps to ensure that the self-advocate community of adults with disabilities is consulted prior to future public relations efforts.

The NYU Child Study Center's reputation with parents, professionals and individuals with disabilities suffers as a result of the inaccuracies and negative stereotypes promoted in the “Ransom Notes” campaign. These ads will not encourage parents to bring their children to your center, or any center. Rather, these ads will make parents afraid and ashamed of their children, resulting in more children going without helpful services and interventions. These ads are also a slap in the face to both the many youth and adults who survive and thrive with the diagnoses being so inaccurately described and to the many self-advocates, parents and professionals who have worked hard to change the public image of these disabilities so that youth and adults with disabilities can be fully included and accepted in school, at home, at work and in the community at large. I urge you to apologize to the disability community and to take immediate action to remove the offensive material from the public eye.

Thank you for your time and I hope to hear from you soon.

[Fill in Name Here]

Contact Information:

NYU Child Study Center:
Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz
Phone: 212-263-6205
Fax: 212.263.0990
Dr. Koplewicz's E-mail: Harold.Koplewicz@nyumc.org
Communications Department:
Beth Rowan, Director of Communications
NYU Child Study Center
577 First Avenue
New York, NY 10016

This is the NYU Child Study Center website: http://www.aboutourkids.org/

In addition, please take the time to copy Michael Statfeld Recanati at mrecanati@aol.com and Ira Statfeld Recanati at istatfeld@aol.com on your e-mails to the NYU Child Study Center. Mr. and Mrs. Recanati are the donors responsible for the creation of the NYU Asperger Institute. You may also want to contact Dr. Robert Grossman, Director of the NYU Medical Center, which has control over the NYU Child Study Center. He can be reached at 212.263.3269 and by e-mail at Robert.grossman@nyumc.org

Mr. and Mrs. Recanati and Dr. Grossman are NOT responsible for the offensive advertising in the “Ransom Notes” campaign but they are in a position to stop it. As such, if you choose to write to them directly, we encourage you to be cordial and polite in explaining our concerns and encourage them to place pressure on the NYU Child Study Center to pull the “Ransom Notes” campaign.

BBDO New York:
BBDO New York designed and contributed the advertising for the NYU Child Study Center's “Ransom Notes” campaign. Please contact them to express your displeasure and explain why these advertisements are so offensive to individuals with disabilities.

John Osborn
President and CEO of BBDO New York
BBDO New York
1285 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10019
(212) 459-5000
John Osborn's e-mail: john.osborn@bbdo.com
Press Relations at BBDO: laurie.ben-haim@bbdo.com

Van Wagner Communications, LLC:
Van Wagner Communications, LLC has donated significant billboard and kiosk space to the NYU “Ransom Notes” campaign. Please write and call to their New York office to explain to them why these advertisements are so offensive to individuals with disabilities and to urge them to withdraw their support.

Tel: 212.699.8500
Fax: 212.699.8521
47-50 Van Dam Street
Long Island City, NY 11101

Van Wagner has another address and phone number here:
(212) 699-8400 phone
(212) 986-0927 fax
Richard Schaps, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Van Wagner Communications, LLC.
800 Third Ave 28th Floor
New York, NY 10022
This is the Van Wagner website: http://www.vanwagner.com/