When "awareness" becomes stigma: Representations of autism in charity campaigns and the media, and their impact on people with autism

Friday, November 1, 2013
First author:
Waltz M.

The Autism Centre, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK

All authors:

Mitzi Waltz

Social Inclusion & Representation
stigma, media, charity, advertising


To analyse representations of autism in charity campaigns, and consider the potential impact of these on the lives of people with autism.


Textual analysis of charity campaign materials, application of Hevey's (1992) framework for analysis of stigma production in media representations of disability, interviews with charity and advertising professionals involved in creating these campaigns, and analysis of UK Advertising Standards Authority data on how complaints about campaigns seen by self-advocates as producing stigma were handled.


Representations are described and analysed in multiple ways. They are then related to public policy decisions and problematic constructions of autism in professional literature and media narratives, including discourses that have resulted in or excused abuse and violence towards individuals with autism.


There is a dark side to campaigns for ‘autism awareness,’ if their true impact is to place people on the autism spectrum as objects of fear, distress, and concern over cost to the public purse. A campaign co-created with autistic adults was significantly different than other appeals, leading to the conclusion that such involvement may prevent stigmatising discourses.

Selected references

Barnett, J., and Hammond, S. (1999) "Representing disability in charity promotions," Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 9(4): pp. 309–314.

Darke, P. (2004) "The changing face of representations of disability in the media." In: Swain, J., French, C., Barnes, C. and Thomas, C. [eds.] Disabling Barriers--Enabling Environments, 2nd edition. London: Sage: pp. 100-105.

Hevey, D. (1992) The Creatures Time Forgot: Photography and Disability Imagery. London: Routledge.