Child Study Center Cancels Autism Ads

By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 20, 2007

NEW YORK -- The words, in blocky typeface, read like a ransom note. "We have your son. We will make sure he will no longer be able to care for himself or interact socially as long as he lives. This is only the beginning."

The note is signed "Autism," and it is an advertisement, placed along with five other ransom notes -- dealing with bulimia, depression, Asperger syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder -- on billboards and kiosks in this city by the New York University Child Study Center, intending to urge parents to seek treatment for children with the disorders and spark a broader conversation.

But Wednesday, the center withdrew its ads, after receiving thousands of calls and e-mails, many from people who said they found the notes offensive and hurtful, more likely to spread stigma and fear than to help.

"The problem is the debate was getting more and more focused on the ads, and not on the children who have disabilities," said Harold S. Koplewicz, the founder and director of the center, whose goals are to improve the treatment of child psychiatric disorders through scientific practice, research and education, and to eliminate the stigma surrounding them.

Opposition to the ads came from some of the very advocates who share the goals of the center, including adults who have psychiatric and neurological disorders. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network organized a campaign in the blogosphere, signed up more than 20 disability rights groups to their cause and collected more than 1,000 signatures on an Internet petition.

"These ads reflect some very old and damaging stereotypes about people with disabilities by suggesting that we are not entirely present and not fully within our own bodies," said Ari Ne'eman, president of the network, who has Asperger's.

The intention was never to spread stereotypes, Koplewicz said. Instead, he hoped to use a provocative metaphor -- that an untreated disability can hold a child hostage -- and make an impact.

"There is a public health crisis in this country," he said. "There are 12 million children with psychiatric disorders. An overwhelming number go untreated. They're uninsured. It's under-researched."

The pro bono campaign by the agency BBDO launched in New York on Dec. 1, with ads on about 200 kiosks, Koplewicz said. The campaign was originally intended to spread to four other cities, including Washington, in coming months, he said.

Instead, Koplewicz plans to hold a virtual town hall discussion in January with some of those who opposed his campaign most vociferously and create a new campaign to be produced by BBDO early in the new year.

John Osborn, president and chief executive of BBDO New York, said the ransom notes were intended "to create awareness, to break through the clutter, and heighten the urgency of intervention and improve the lives of kids."

Koplewicz said that when he and his colleagues first saw the campaign, "we had a visceral response to it, saying it was too strong, it might be too harsh." But then, he said, he saw reactions from focus groups made up of mothers, a third of whom had a child with one of the disorders. "The initial response was 'Oh, this is too harsh, this is too scary, it's frightening me,' " he said. "After 20 minutes, parents recognized that the facts were harsher than the ads."

He said he received calls from parents who felt their children had indeed somehow been seized by forces beyond their control. But he was surprised by visceral reactions from parents who said the ads made them feel guilty and angry, and adults with disabilities, who said the ads made them feel disparaged.

"I think there's a stigma about psychiatric disorders that is really much stronger than one would imagine," said Koplewicz, making people with disorders "incredibly sensitive -- and understandably so."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company