Advertising for Autism

Dr. Claire Hughes-Lynch

  • The Wyndham Hotel in Austin, TX recently started to offer “autism-friendly” rooms with sensory activities and an alarm on the door that will alert you when the door is opened.
  • Colgate is sponsoring a Dental Tool Kit for children with autism.
  • Dealing with a child’s Asperger’s is a main plot theme in the show Parenthood on NBC, the movie Adam and many, many other more main-stream media.
  • Regal Cinemas offers “autism-friendly” movie showings in which it is OK to make noises, cry and wander around.
  • Discovery Toys just started marketing a line of toys designed for children with autism.
  • And of course, there are the various foods, technology and products specifically designed to educate, cure, support, and raise awareness of autism

I think we’ve just reached the tipping point of autism being used as a marketing tool to reach families. As Kristina Chew said, back in 2007, “At this rate, I’m anticipating the Autism Limited Edition vehicles of various cars.” With 1 in 110 children diagnosed with autism, marketers have realized that if autism is such an “epidemic,” there is money to be made off of it.

Don’t misunderstand — I think this is all great. I am much more likely to book a room at the Wyndham the next time I’m in Austin, even though it is more expensive than my typical hotel. I am thrilled that friends of mine can actually take their child to go and see Toy Story 3 and not have to wait to see it on DVD. I think it takes the stigma out of autism when I see lots of people wearing buttons, ribbons, necklaces, and hats with the various puzzle pieces on them. When I read that young professionals in New York are taking time to raise awareness for autism despite their childless state, I know that the awareness level has been raised. Awareness is the first step in the path to tolerance, to acceptance.

But it is a bit odd to have this family issue, this disease, this condition, this difference, this — whatever autism is — considered a niche for marketing purposes. I receive so many advertisements aimed at other aspects of my life. Do I want a credit card that says what college I graduated from? Do I want some face cream to firm up these middle-aged eyes of mine? Do I want to set up a special college savings fund? Do I want pet insurance? Do I want to attend a conference on teacher education? Do I want to shop the special flowers on sale at our local nursery? (No, maybe, yes, maybe, probably yes, probably not.)

It’s even more interesting, when you consider that some recent research indicates that the careers of mothers of children with autism suffer. In other words, we don’t have as much money to spend as our peers, but there’s new competition for how we spend it. Marketers have realized that we are an audience worthy of wooing.

It is clear that there is money to be made in autism. I applaud the public relations efforts of organizations such as Autism Speaks and others who have teamed with businesses, local and national, to raise awareness and to raise funds for research, for support, and for education. But I wonder about the pure-heartedness of the philanthropy efforts of organizations like Proctor and Gamble and the Wyndham when they are trying to encourage me to spend my (limited) money on their products instead of their competitors’. It’s a bit odd when autism becomes a demographic — something as marketable as my age, my gender, my level of education, and where I live. It means that we, as autism families, have “arrived” in the public awareness when we are a target market.

For the reality is that autism does drive my purchasing choices. We pick that brand of clothing because the tags are sewn on the inside, and that brand of toilet paper because it’s the least scratchy. We don’t buy spaghetti sauce at all because I can’t clean up the stains. We buy a lot of Legos; we buy a lot of gum. We don’t own a vacuum cleaner because it’s too loud and we have a lot of pillows that are placed in strategic hidey-holes around the house. We buy iPods. We buy stuff that is soft, cozy, and sensually interesting — but not too stimulating. We only shop at Walmart when we’re child-free because the shelves are stacked too high and the building echoes too much; Target is our family store of choice. We go swimming a lot. We do not go to pizza restaurants because of their noise level. We’re online a lot. We go through a lot of toothbrushes and we own a lot of DVDs. Oh yes, autism drives our choices of products, places we shop, and activities.

So, I’m talking to you, Honda/Ford/Toyota. My autism family wants back seats that can be cooled/heated and aren’t too scratchy or too slippery. We want seats that rock. We want seats that squeeze and massage and can be turned off at a moment’s notice. We want blinds that can be adjusted in various directions to block out the glare. We want iPod hookups at every seat. We want doors on the outside that can open without a lot of training, and doors on the inside that can’t open at all without a button that parents can control. We want seat belts that can only be opened by the same parental control button. We want fabrics that can be wiped clean of any liquid or material — bodily or otherwise. We want things for children to kick that don’t bother people in the front seats. We want a car that that doesn’t overload the senses- that doesn’t smell, is too loud or too bright. And oh yes, we want it to look like other cars — as “typical” as possible. We want to be able to drive without autism riding along.

When you see the puzzle symbol on that special edition minivan/sedan/SUV, you let me know!