A few months ago, my 8-year-old daughter was having problems with the kids on her bus. They were making fun of her because she was crying. Why she was crying isn’t really important, but this wasn’t the first time this had happened. We talked about it afterward. I tried to explain to her that most 8-year-olds don’t cry a lot unless something really bad or sad happens to them. She said she knew that, but she couldn’t help it.
“I told them I have autism, Daddy. But that didn’t help.”
My daughter was diagnosed with high-functioning autism six years ago. You’d be unlikely to know she’s autistic when meeting her for the first time. She doesn’t present many of the stereotypical behaviors that go along with how people understand autism. She’s friendly, bubbly, and social, almost to a fault. It’s only when something happens to cause a “meltdown,” which usually manifests as a loud burst of tears, that she presents as anything other than neurotypical. But she’s different than the other kids, and that brings with it a number of strengths and weaknesses that are unique to her as a girl with autism.
That’s why I was initially excited when I saw the announcement that Skylanders would be creating special figures for autism awareness. Skylanders is easily the most influential franchise among kids in my daughter’s peer group other than Minecraft. Anything to help raise awareness of what autism is and how they make kids like my daughter different would be incredibly welcome. We’re getting into the age where bullying becomes more prevalent and fitting in becomes more important. The different ways that kids with autism interpret and react to social situations make them more vulnerable in those situations.
That’s why the actual campaign feels very disappointing. Creating special characters for autism awareness provided an opportunity to include an in-game storyline that would highlight what autism really is and how autistic kids might behave differently than others. Given the lack of representation of autism in media in general and games in particular, this could have been a great way to help autistic kids appreciate their strengths as well as to help their peers understand them.
What we got, though, is simply a pair of figures that were painted blue. This campaign seems to approach autism awareness in the very literal sense by simply pronouncing that it exists, but fails to take the next step from awareness to understanding. It’s fair to say that most people who have heard of Skylanders have probably also heard of autism. But many of those people still think of Rain Man as the template for what it means to be autistic. That’s very often not the case.
The proceeds from the autism awareness Skylanders figures also concerning. Activision has pledged to make donations to “non-profits that are making a difference in the autism community” but declined to specify which organizations or what percentage of the profits will be donated. Not all autism non-profits are created equal. While there are a number of great organizations that work to improve the quality of life for people on the autism spectrum, there are others that devote most of their resources in an attempt to cure or treat autism, thereby portraying it as a disorder or disability as opposed to just different. (It’s worth mentioning that Autism Speaks, the organization partnering with Activision on these figures, generally falls into the latter category and is extremely controversial within the autism community.)
This isn’t to say that there’s anything less than genuine about Activision’s efforts here. Their press release recognized the impact Skylanders has on the lives of kids on the spectrum. It’s also great that they want to use their position in the market to give back. But there’s also a risk that treating autism in this way is similar to how every consumer product gets a pink version for breast cancer awareness month. It could send the message that autistic people are sick or disabled. And that awareness will somehow lead to a cure.
My daughter is far from being sick or disabled. Her brain just works in a way that most neurotypical people aren’t used to. Her quality of life as she grows up will be directly related to the number of people around her who understand and accept that fact.
All in all, this sadly feels like a missed opportunity to take the next step and educate people rather than just make a gesture to raise awareness. Ultimately, any efforts to improve the lives of people on the autism spectrum are positive. I’m sure this campaign comes from a good place. However, we’re well past the point where it’s simply enough to color figures blue to tell the world that autism exists. One in every 68 children born end up diagnosed with autism, so it’s likely that most children will end up with an autistic classmate or co-worker at some point in their lives.
The next step beyond awareness is to help people who are neurotypical understand that they likely know people on the autism spectrum. These people may not behave like their preconceived notions of an autistic person. Instead people should learn what they can do to lessen the challenges those with autism face day to day. Given video games’ ability to emotionally connect with players, especially kids, Activision squandered a fantastic opportunity with this campaign to make an actual difference for many kids, both on the spectrum and otherwise.
As a parent of kids on the autism spectrum, I can only hope that this year’s campaign is successful enough that Activision can take the sorely needed next step next year. Maybe then, when my daughter explains to her classmates that she has autism, they might be more likely to understand what that means.