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Bad representation is still mainstream
How the ME, MY AUTISM & I campaign from Vanish was more upsetting than an exorcism.
Today, I want to tell you about a really, really bad surprise I got last week, one that might help explain why I spend time and effort being “out there” with my autism, and also what it feels like.
Cinemas have always been a safe space for me. My whole family is big into movies, so I had exposure from a very young age and, as an autistic kid, movies allowed me to get safe second-hand experiences where I could reflect safely on misunderstandings, social cues, unspoken expectations and illogical emotions. I loved it so much, I eventually joined a drama school, which helped me understand how to be with humans even more!
A few weeks ago, I went to see The Pope’s Exorcist with my husband, brother and sister-in-law - fun fact, it’s based on the real-life of a priest from my home province in Italy.
It should have been the ultimate escapism, brainless fun evening activity. Then the commercials began.
Trigger warning: this can be distressing for neurodivergent folk. I completely appreciate you might want to skip ahead or not want to read it altogether.
Take a trip inside my brain, as I watch a detergent brand tell me I’m a burden to my family
The clip opens with a high-school-drama flair, the protagonist is a teenager who doesn’t want to go to school but eventually goes about her life, but something’s not quite right, she has some odd behaviours, some outbursts, she gets stressed at the noise of laughter from her sister’s friends, and my alarm bells go off - she’s autistic.
I’m high on adrenaline in an instant, after all, I was expecting to sit down for a fun B-movie, not to be pulled into a double-empathy lock with the protagonist of a commercial. Yet I’m there, suddenly reliving traumatic experiences from my life through her.
But there’s also hope here, because hey, it’s a girl, they’re finally representing autistic girls! and the writing is realistic, they have clearly done some research here.
I take a deep breath, calm my nerves, keep an open mind and keep watching.
The girl is not stereotypically shy, she’s not even masking and she’s confident enough to let her needs known. She has friends, she has hobbies and her family clearly loves her. You can see what upsets her, like when someone bumps into her in the corridor or makes fun of her, so there’s vulnerability. This is good, right? Yet, I’m still very agitated.
Then I get it.
She’s the family’s bully.
From the get go, they showed her disrupting the family’s peace, making everyone cater to her whims. She screams at her sister’s friend out of the blue. Her mom and dad look fatigued and sad. We see her practicing the drums at night **while her family was trying to watch a movie and now they’re forced to put subtitles on (Why is the drum set in the living room? Why haven’t they set rules around appropriate practice hours?).
Then the sister steals her favourite jumper, to get back at her, I guess, for the frustration and special treatment she’s getting from their parents.
In the morning, our girl is so distressed from not finding that jumper that she develops a tic, and she’s screaming at everyone, especially her mother who is portrayed as desperate by this point.
The sister comes to her senses and gives the jumper back, all love and apologies. The hero.
And the brand comes up:
“For Ash and many autistic people, familiar clothing can be a lifeline”.
And then, you hear me shout “F*ck off” at the screen.
Of course, there’s commercial b*llsh*t afoot
Vanish, you probably all know it, is a brand of washing soap. “Clothes live longer with Vanish” has been their mantra for a while, but now that autism is a thing and it is known that autistic people care about the sensory aspect of their clothes (and food, and paper, and all surfaces), why not come out during Autism Awareness Month with an ad campaign about autism, in partnership with Ambitious About Autism and Channel 4? Topical! Kudos. They’re so proud of it, they’re shouting about it on their website so loudly the writing goes below the fold (as if I wasn’t upset enough).
The advert had serious backing behind it, so much so that it was directed by Tom Hopper (The King’s Speech, ffs. And Cats, which makes more sense). It’s being praised all over the internet and the industry for providing insights into autism and addressing the diagnosis gender gap, supported by neurodivergent influencers and critics.
I don’t want to blame any individuals here, there isn’t any malice. I’m even glad if this reaches corners of the world that still didn’t know about autism or didn’t believe women could be autistic too.
But this isn’t representation, it’s exploitation.
The campaign latches onto the sensory needs of autistic people to sell more detergent to their families.
It doesn’t get much… dirtier than that. Hah.
But the real problem is the twisted narrative
I’m angry, but it’s hard to describe the extent, or why watching that commercial ate at my insides and kept me awake at night.
They used an actually autistic girl as the main actress and her real family and friends, the story was meant to be inspired by their real lives in some ways, and you can definitely see a more nuanced treatment of autistic traits than what we’ve seen in the past on TV. They had a great opportunity and they ticked a lot of the good boxes. On paper, it should have been great.
But you can basically see the moment someone said “Hold up, it’s not the autistic kid who’ll buy detergent, let’s shift the focus on the family and show that we have empathy for them the most”.
And in doing so, they’re reinforcing that, even if our needs and feelings as autistic people are finally acknowledged, they just don’t matter. What matters more are the feelings of everyone around us, and how hard it can be for them to deal with us.
It’s triggering, tone deaf and upsetting. It’s also filmed in an extremely dramatic way, and quite flashy, really pumping the gas on the emotional manipulation.
Think of this: what if the story was about an autistic employee, and the focus was on the suffering colleagues and managers who are forced to accommodate them?
We would call that a toxic company culture.
So yes, I’m angry. And deeply hurt. Because there were many ways to tell the same story with equal empathy and compassion for everyone involved. Less drama, more curiosity. Less manipulation, more truth.
I thought we had made more progress than this. I put myself out there consistently to help make more progress than this. It made me feel like the world is just not going to change.
And now I have to time going to the cinema slightly later to avoid seeing it again, for who knows how long. Ffs.
P.S. The Pope’s Exorcist was fun at least. Russel Crowe nailed the accent.