(Written by #actuallyautistic advocate Alex Haagaard)
[For immediate release] Kiehl’s faces backlash from Autistic community for campaign supporting ‘hate group’
Following the recent launch of the #KiehlsxAutismSpeaks campaign, Autistic people have taken to social media to express their outrage over the popular beauty brand’s support for an organisation many of them consider to be a hate group. A petition asking the Kiehl’s to discontinue the campaign has received over 500 signatures since being launched on Friday.
Autism Speaks is known for its history of promoting dangerous fringe theories of autism and supporting abusive treatment of autistic children. For many years, the organisation prioritised research into a proposed link between childhood vaccines and autism. This theory gained popular traction with the 1998 publication of a now-infamous study in The Lancet. But despite the fact that 10 of the study’s 12 authors formally retracted it in 2004, followed by a formal retraction from the journal in 2010, it wasn’t until 2015 that Autism Speaks acknowledged that, “vaccines do not cause autism.” Autism Speaks also featured the Judge Rotenberg Center as an exhibitor at their 2013 DC fundraising walk. The Center’s “treatment” methods include electric shocks, deep-muscle pinches, forced inhalation of ammonia, sleep deprivation, and prolonged restraint; at least six disabled students have died at the facility in connection with their “treatment” there.
In the wake of these scandals, Autism Speaks has attempted to revise its public image, emphasising their “support” for autistic children. However, scrutiny of both their policies and branding reveals an ongoing disregard for the humanity of Autistic people. One of their primary mandates remains the funding of research into the treatment and prevention of autism, which is regarded by the disability rights community as a form of eugenics. Another concern raised by the Autistic community involves Autism Speaks’ promotion of a technique called Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA. ABA was developed by Ole Ivar Lovaas, who later worked with Family Research Council co-founder George Rekers, applying ABA methods to gender non-conforming children. Lovaas and Rekers published their experiments, some of the first attempts at ‘gay conversion therapy’, in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Even today, conversion therapy and ABA share many of the same methods, and Autistic activists point out that children who are subjected to ABA experience the same harmful effects as victims of gay conversion therapy.
Following Kiehl’s launch of their limited edition #KiehlsxAutismSpeaks lotion on September 1, Autistic users inundated the brand’s Twitter account with posts expressing their disappointment and anger at the collaboration; a thread by user @sicklefrijoles has been retweeted nearly a thousand times. A number of Autistic people have said that they are no longer comfortable using Kiehl’s products as a result of the campaign.
Savannah L Breakstone, an Autistic blogger and advocate, says, “As a femme Autistic I tend to be someone my Autistic friends ask advice of when they either want or need to femme up or take better care of their skin. Before I could recommend Kiehl’s as a solid brand to pick up – effective and quality. Now I don’t feel like I can recommend them anymore to anyone because of their association with Autism Speaks.”
Kim Sauder, a PhD student in Disability Studies, emphasises that campaigns like this one do real harm to the communities they claim to support. “Campaigns like the Kiehl’s Autism Speaks campaign are harmful for a number of reasons. They promote an uncritical engagement with a particular charity. By pairing with Autism Speaks, Kiehl’s actively promotes it as a beneficial organization. It presents the false idea that Autism Speaks (or any other charity being campaigned for in a similar manner for that matter) is inherently good. It tells people that they can benefit a marginalized group simply by buying something. Not through any actual engagement with that group. Which reinforces ideas of separateness and the continued proliferation of false ideas around autism and autistic people.”
Autistic activist Alex Haagaard has launched a petition on Change.org, calling on Kiehl’s to discontinue the campaign. The response to the petition has been swift; since being launched on Friday, it has received — signatures. Alex says, “Too often, criticism from Autistic people on social media is dismissed as anomalous, or even ‘bullying’. I was encouraged by the recent success of a petition asking Tesco, the British supermarket chain, to stop hosting the highly stigmatising “Locked In for Autism” campaign in their stores – a petition provides an opportunity for Autistic people to combine our voices and communicate that this is an issue that concerns a great many of us, as a community.”
Alex Haagaard, Toronto, Canada
+1 905 985 8268
Eve Hinson, Fresno, California
+1 559 640 7225