Autism and performative awareness

As autistic people become more visible in public life, Errol Kerr examines how brands are seeking to repackage themselves as ‘autism friendly'

December 10, 2020 · 7 min read
Sainsbury’s launched the ‘disability lanyard’ campaign

Over the past decade, marketing strategies have had to change as social media has become the medium between brands – such as charities, companies and other institutions – and the public. This has led to these brands reshaping themselves, or at least their marketing strategies, to target specific groups. This can be seen clearly with regards to how brands focusing on autistic people have adapted to continue to take centre stage in the conversation around disability.

As self-advocates and disability activists have become more and more difficult to silence due to easy access to social media platforms, attitudes towards autistic people have changed drastically.

With the realisation that autistic people do indeed exist outside the bubble of ‘otherness’, and that autistic children grow up to be autistic adults who can critically examine these brands, many of these spaces have changed their tack significantly. Whereas once branding was focused on parents of autistic children, rather than the children themselves, many entities have moved towards a more representative depiction of autism, becoming ‘autism-aware’ and ‘autism-friendly’. What these changes are, and what they represent, remains to be examined.

Performative accessibility

Elements of the charity sector that focus on autistic people have changed significantly. After severing ties with former partner charity Autism Speaks in 2010, Autistica has reframed itself, both internally and externally. As a charity with its origins in questionable places, its work has been significant, most recently delving into videogames, bringing together the charity sector and games industry through partnerships with videogame streamers and games developers.

This has come alongside a change in how autistic people are represented across the charity sector – though there is still a long way to go in centring autistic people and placing them in the sector’s upper echelons. Social media has allowed charities such as the National Autistic Society to show the public that their priorities have shifted from teaching parents about autistic children towards supporting the autistic adults who see their platforms on a day-to-day basis.

The twisting of the hidden disability lanyard into both a ‘mask exemption’ pass and a required form of disability identification is concerning


Becoming ‘autism-friendly’ has also been a priority for many companies, which proudly display the things they do for autistic people. One example is the ‘autism hour’ that many supermarkets have created in recent years, a period of the shop’s opening time when music is turned low and potential sensory difficulties are avoided in store. While this is hailed as a progressive move, often it feels performative. These hours tend to be early in the day, usually when disability passes for public transport aren’t valid, and limiting shopping to a set time indicates that this approach to autistic people is lazy at best.

Some might argue not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but access measures for ‘autism hours’ could often be in place all the time, and yet are not. Many of these changes are excellent for many disabled people, but often this kind of performativity only serves to isolate them further, when they can be told there’s an ‘hour they can shop’ if they have issues in store.

We can also examine the disability lanyard created by Sainsbury’s in 2019 that has become increasingly popular. This was developed with good intentions. A yellow band with sunflowers printed upon it, it indicates that the wearer has a hidden disability. This can often mean you avoid odd, prying questions when you need to use the toilet or an accessible parking space.

However, in recent months, what was initially branded as a support tool has been used as a method to police disabled people, with many shops requiring you to have some proof of disability or condition in order to not wear some form of mask in their premises. I’m all for wearing a mask if you’re able to but the twisting of the hidden disability lanyard into both a ‘mask exemption’ pass and a required form of disability identification is concerning for many reasons.

Performative representation

While we’re examining performativity, let’s take a look at our screens and the example of how autism has been used by streaming giant Netflix in recent years. After being criticised on multiple occasions during the first season of their show Atypical , a comedy-drama focusing on the life of a young white autistic man, programme-makers ensured that autistic people were consulted on the second season of the show. Unfortunately, the result was questionable representation at best; placing marginalised people on screen means nothing without a clear understanding of their experiences, which was most definitely lacking. The positive representation of queer relationships in the show is admirable but good representation of one marginalised group should never come at the expense of another.

Placing marginalised people on screen means nothing without a clear understanding of their experiences

Most recently, the first season of Love on the Spectrum, a documentary about autistic people and their romantic relationships, led to a lengthy discussion online, in which I participated, around the performative nature of autistic depiction in television. While some UK charities have got the memo, it seems that US companies such as Netflix still view autistic people as cis, white, requiring their parents’ support and often with somewhat questionable views towards their peers – and they’re willing to perpetuate those stereotypes for clicks, views and revenue. We are yet to see a second season of Love on the Spectrum, and it will be at least another year to see whether Netflix recognises its mistakes with the final season of Atypical.

Recent history has been strange for autistic people. On one hand, more and more autistic people – particularly women, trans people and people of colour – are making their way into the centre of our conversations around ourselves. For example, books from people such as Laura Kate Dale have been making waves and black disability rights advocate Kayla Smith has created the #AutisticBlackPride movement on Twitter. On the other hand, high-profile autistic people are mocked in wider media, as seen in the treatment given to Greta Thunberg in everything from the new series of Spitting Image to the sneering of Donald Trump.

We have made progress, but there’s a long way to go when it comes to how neurotypical people discuss us, and where we exist in that discussion.

Errol Kerr is an autism advocate and activist.

This column first appeared in Issue 230: Struggles for Truth. Subscribe today to get great content hot off the press!


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