Thursday, December 13, 2007

Hostage Negotiations

Much has been written about NYU Child Study Center's "Ransom Notes" child mental health/mental illness advertising campaign. Kristina at AutismVox is keeping a running list of posts about the campaign, so I won't list them all here. The New York Times ran a story about the campaign this morning. But for my part, I hadn't posted about the ad campaign, or about anything else for that matter.

I first spotted an ad from the campaign last week, the one about childhood depression, in the back of New York Magazine. My response was visceral — something between nausea and the sensation that you've just been kicked in the stomach. But I wasn't in my autism-mom-advocate blogging mode. I was in my keeping-my-family-together, working-two-jobs mode. So I just made a mental note of the disturbing ad and continued on my way. The closest I came to a complete thought about it was "oh, ick, oh ick, oh awful, not NOT good."

But when I got an email from GRASP about the campaign, I felt as though I had to dash off an email to Dr. Koplewicz about my reaction. Sweet M has been in treatment at the Child Study Center for five years, and some of the practitioners there have been spectacularly good. One of them taught me how to teach Sweet M to read — back in the very earliest days of this blog. (And now she's twirling pillows with her toes while reading her many and beloved Berenstain Bear books.) Another has been the world-class psychiatrist who has helped us through many a rough patch in the past five years.

Possibly because I also have — full disclosure — a professional affiliation with NYU, Dr. Koplewicz phoned me earlier this week and we spoke yesterday. Based on that conversation, I would say that he has heard the concerns of the autism community loud and clear and is contemplating what to do about the campaign, though admittedly the public rhetoric would not suggest that. I believe that the Child Study Center's interest in raising the awareness of childhood mental health issues is genuine. I also believe that the Ransom Notes campaign is a disaster, from nearly every point of view.

Why? Because the metaphor of hostage taking is a metaphor of trauma, evoking and provoking trauma. Hostage taking is an act of desperation, one of the primary powers of the weak, where those with the least to lose try to make others feel how very much they can lose. Desperation is its raisonne d’etre.

For those of us who are old enough to remember the genesis of Ted Koppel's career-making television news program Nightline, the show began in 1979 as a nightly report on the state of the Iranian hostage crisis where Americans were held hostage for 444 days in 1979-1981. The late night news program started out as a prime time report on the status of the hostage situation. After the trademark music — DA DUN DUH DUN -- the voice over would announce "DAY 22 (or whatever the day was) — AMERICA held HOSTAGE."

Koppel's late night program, which commanded high ratings and kept the crisis in the minds of Americans all through the night, contributed to President Jimmy Carter's loss to Ronald Reagan. Later everyone learned that Reagan staged a behind the scenes arms-for-hostages deal, organizing for the hostages to be released just minutes after his inauguration. The rest, as they say, is history.

Americans feelings of powerlessness in the face of the Iranian hostage situation led to the desire for "morning in America" and a campaign of chest-thumping free-marketeering. (Anyone remember the American invasion of Grenada? Yes, that's Grenada — the tiny Caribbean island that had a socialist leadership. Yep, we invaded 'em. Recently we haven't been picking such easy targets.)

What's this got to do with the NYU-CSC's Ransom Notes campaign?

Powerlessness is (paradoxically) a powerful feeling. It sways elections. It changes history. It mobilizes people, as fascists of every stripe know well.

The idea that one's child is held hostage is so provocative — it taps so deeply into the feelings of powerlessness that I'd venture each of us has felt from time to time — as to evoke profound feelings of rage. Now, I'd venture, our rage is directed, not surprisingly, at the NYU-Child Study Center which deployed the dubious and dangerous hostage-rescue-kidnapped-child metaphor.

But at the end of the day, my rage continues to be directed at the lack of resources, supports and services, for our children.

Misguided and ill-conceived as the Ransom Notes campaign is, I believe that the NYU Child Study Center shares my concern over the lack of resources available for our children, and the lack of public awareness of the challenges our children and families face. I think they have been attempting, with limited success, to raise awareness of challenges that neurologically different children face, albeit within the psychiatric framework that by definition understands difference as disease or disorder.

The Ransom Notes has campaign (along with the debacle around the Autism Speaks autism awareness campaign) has left me wondering whether the rhetorics used in advertising campaigns are simply too one-dimensional to work as advocacy tools.

If we, in the autism parenting and autism advocacy community, were to launch an ad campaign to raise awareness of childhood neurological differences and social integration issues, what would it look like? How would it play? Where could it take us?

That's a conversation I'd like to have.


Neurodivergent K said...

I want to see a campaign with

a) actual information. "awareness" is so 1998. If someone isn't "aware" it's because they're willfully ignorant at this point. But information, the "awareness" campaigns intentionally withhold to create more hysteria to generate more money.

b) positive portrayals for once. Yes, there are problems, mention what helped, but for heaven's sake we are not a bundle of pathologies. Being treated as such is more likely to lead to suicide attempts than the condition of autism (or ADHD-detriment to themselves and others, OMG?) or what have you.

Dignity. We deserve it. Sweet M deserves it.

kristina said...

Both the "Ransom Notes" campaign and the "Autism Every Day" video seem to have stumbled in the same way, despite what are said to be the best of intentions. In both campaigns, inflammatory and extreme statements have been featured (I refer to the infamous "I would have driven off the GW Bridge" moment). In both cases, I'm thinking that (in the case of the advertising agency at least) that targeted, imagined audience was parents in those feelings of rage and fear and terror, and those whose could imagine themselves as such a parent. Not considered---perhaps because we've only started to think of these persons as an audience---were those with the disabilities themselves. I refer here to autistic adults; but what about those of us who have lived and managed with ADHD, depression, OCD, eating disorders? We know the difficulties of life with a psychiatric condition, and we also know the shame and stigma cast upon by others. What has puzzled me is how the campaign uses rhetoric and images and analogies that are pre-1998, if I may say so.

Thanks for providing more insight about the NYU center and about Dr. Koplewicz. I hope I might be able to speak to him one day, too.

And so good to hear your voice!

VAB said...

An ad campaign that I would like to see would show the positive outcomes of understanding, inclusion and appropriate education. It could also show the difficulties and the damage done by bigotry and indifference, but that would be of secondary importance to me.

If you want to achieve something, you must focus on the desired goal, not the thing that blocks you.

Imagine what it would be like if teachers kept seeing ads of happy, well-adjusted autistic kids, making progress without being any less autistic (kids rocking as they solve math problems, answering questions in class without making eye contact, drawing a cool pictures, etc.). If things didn't work out that way with the autistic kids in their class, they'd feel cheated. They'd want to put things right.

Instead of that, thanks to what I feel amounts to a disregard so callous and damaging that we might call it evil on the part of the folks at NYU, where there are problems, teachers will shrug their shoulders and say to themselves, "Ah well, they'll never be able to care for themselves or socially interact, anyway. Things are as they should be."

Anonymous said...

I just saw one of these - huge! - on a bus shelter on 6th Avenue, I believe. It was about Aspergers! I found it so offensive!

abfh said...

Here's a link to a post I just wrote about what a good advertising campaign looks like.

Thanks so much for your "negotiations" to talk Dr. Koplewicz out of continuing with these misguided ads!

Anonymous said...

thank you for this, mothersvox. so good to hear from you! i've missed you!

i want that conversation, that brainstorming session, and the public awareness campaign that would come from it.

i don't know exactly what it would look like but i know what it would do; it would tap into everyone's personal life experience so that everyone, regardless of their degree of neurological typicality, would *get* what kids and teenagers and adults on the spectrum can struggle with: feeling bombarded, pressured, ridiculed, misunderstood, held to a narrow and sometimes extremely superficial standard of acceptable and desirable behavior because the 'typical' person doesn't want to take the time to stop, ask, listen, and be flexible in response. the 'typical' person gets frightened, confused, feels challenged or inconvenienced so they make that person wrong or broken.

the dialogue has to begin with genuine identifcation or the actions that come out of it will be distorted every time no matter the intent.

MothersVox said...

Kassiane, Kristina, MOM-NOS, Monica, Kyra, VAB, and ABFH —

Great hearing from all of you! How I've missed you as I've been trudging through my crazy fall.

Monica, I'm going to take a walk up Sixth Avenue later today to check it out if the slush and snow don't deter me!

Kassiane, I love what you said about "awareness" being so last century. Still I wonder, especially when I read something in the newspaper about autistic children being "exorcised" as a way of addressing their autism (sometimes with fatal effects since that's how it winds up in the news) I wonder how many people really are not aware of the neurological basis of the phenomena that we call autism.

A lot of people don't believe in childhood mental illness. God knows I've encountered that problem, esp. within my own family of origin, where Sweet M's "misbehavior" was routinely attributed to my putative bad parenting. The idea that she could have neurobiological difference that made the world significantly more challenging to navigate was just anathema. Parents don't want to think their kids have mental illnesses because then the parents feel blamed because one way or another, it started with them (either genes or bad parenting). One of the only ways off the hook for parents is to think that their child(ren) has/have been poisoned. This has contributed immeasurably to the traction the mercury poisoning hypothesis has had.

Frankly, I think it takes a lot to break through that parental narcissism to get parents to get help for their kids. That's why I liked the Child Study Center's previous campaign . . . a series of ads that followed the line "He's got your eyes. He's got your smile. Maybe he's got your bi-polar disorder too."

Having a nationwide ad with positive images of autistics would be terrific, but the question is, if life is terrific for people on the spectrum, why would anyone need any interventions, help, medications, etc?

I guess it cuts right to the heart of the trouble with autism -- it's not a disease that can be cured -- more a disposition that has to be negotiated in relationship to a neurologically typical world.

Kyra, The Misunderstood Minds website has a set of "experiences" to help people have the experience of dyslexia or ADHD. It's really fantastic. I think something like this -- on national television (again) -- would be incredibly helpful. It was on, quite some time ago, but a rerun would be terrific.

I still wonder how, or to what extent, an ad campaign, with the constraints of advertising's conventions, could work to deliver anything more than the most schematic message. I'm thinking about it . . . I hope everyone is . .

MothersVox said...

ABFH, I loved that curepity site that you linked to! Terrific ideas! And while I hope I was some help to the autism community and the Child Study Center, so much dialogue will be needed to forge real partnerships. That was just a drop . . .