Kiehl’s: End your #KiehlsxAutismSpeaks campaign
You recently launched the #KiehlsxAutismSpeaks campaign, pledging to donate one dollar to the group Autism Speaks every time that your promotional video is shared on social media. In addition, you have released a limited-edition facial cream in collaboration with actor Matthew McConaughey, from which proceeds of sales will also be donated to Autism Speaks.
We know that a commitment to supporting charitable causes is important to your company, and we agree with the statement in your video that Autistic children need support – though we would add that Autistic adults do as well, and are often forgotten about by the public. But regardless of your good intentions with this campaign, your involvement with Autism Speaks is harmful and alienating to your Autistic customers.
Autism Speaks is a hate group
Autism Speaks is widely considered a hate group within the autistic community. This may seem like hyperbole, but consider: per the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), “all hate groups have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.” 
Autism is a neurotype, and as such it is an immutable and essential part of the identity of Autistic people. It determines how we sense, interpret and engage with the world. Autistic people form a rich and diverse community with our own mutually acceptable set of social and behavioural norms, including but not limited to, our own vocabulary and humour. In other words, we are a distinct community with a distinct culture.
One of the primary ‘supports’ advocated by Autism Speaks is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which is known within the Autistic community as “Autistic conversion therapy”. Indeed, the technique was originated by psychologist Ole Ivar Lovaas who later collaborated with George Rekers in applying his methods to gender non-conforming children.  (Rekers is one of the co-founders of the Family Research Council which, notably, appears on the SPLC’s Hate Map. [1,3])
Autism Speaks is also engaged in funding genetic research to identify genetic and environmental factors that may predispose to autism. They assert that the search for genetic markers is to help with finding “more personalized and more accurate treatments” for autism , and to enable early diagnosis because “early intervention can improve outcomes” . The problem is that by continually defining and referring to autism as a disorder [4,6], they are defining treatment as interventions that will eliminate or minimise the ‘symptoms’ of autism, and they are defining positive outcomes as children who are less noticeably autistic. This is a large-scale effort to eliminate a neurotype – and consequently, over time, the community and culture belonging to the people with this neurotype – from existence.
Even more starkly, Autism Speaks states that they hope supported research into environmental factors “will lead to more-effective strategies to prevent and perhaps even treat the impairments associated with autism.”  Once again, they have taken care to phrase this in a way that is palatable, referring to “the impairments associated with autism”. But once again, when they define autism itself as a disorder, then Autistic identity is, in its entirety, subject to definition as an impairment. Thus, the effort to prevent Autistic characteristics are, in reality, an effort to prevent the birth of Autistic people. This is eugenics.
The branding used by Autism Speaks is also highly problematic, and perpetuates stigma and misconceptions about autism that do real harm to real Autistic people. The puzzle piece motif originates with the National Autistic Society, which adopted a puzzle piece logo based on the logic that,
“The puzzle piece is so effective because it tells us something about autism: our children are handicapped by a puzzling condition; this isolates them from normal human contact and therefore they do not ‘fit in’.” 
The puzzle piece and its history not only reinforce the view that autism is a ‘handicap’ – and one to be ‘solved’, or eliminated at that – it is also an often painful reminder for Autistic people of our experiences of being othered and alienated by allistic (non-Autistic) people.
More recently, Autism Speaks has extended the puzzle piece metaphor to the branding of their genomics project, MSSNG. Per their press release,
“Pronounced “missing,” the name has vowels deliberately omitted to represent the missing pieces of the autism puzzle. It is symbolic of the missing information about autism that the project is designed to find…The campaign will be supported online via a social movement to raise awareness and donations. It encourages supporters to remove vowels from their Twitter display name by going to their profile, clicking “Edit” then “Name” and removing vowels.”
Once again, the subtext of this branding is that autism is a (genetic) puzzle to solve (i.e., eliminate). Moreover, particularly in the context of the accompanying social media campaign, it suggests that Autistic people are somehow incomplete: we have gone from being puzzles, to puzzles that are missing their pieces.
Furthermore, Autism Speaks’ prominent use of the colour blue in its branding is a reference to the (incorrect) stereotype that autism is more common in boys. They state, “Autism Spectrum Disorders are almost 5 times more common among boys (1 in 54) than among girls (1 in 252). So, the color blue represents the boys diagnosed with autism.”  Thus, their entire corporate identity is grounded in the erasure of the girls, women and nonbinary people who are diagnosed with autism. Moreover, the perpetuation of this gendered stereotype contributes to the misconceptions that drive underdiagnosis and late diagnosis of female and nonbinary Autistic people [10-13]. This harms Autistic women and nonbinary people because they go longer without being able to access supports and accommodations, and because they are often misdiagnosed and subjected to inappropriate psychiatric intervention. [11-13]
Finally, Autism Speaks has a history of advancing dangerous and abusive theories and practices. From a 2014 joint letter to Autism Speaks, signed by numerous community-led advocacy groups,
“The anti-vaccine sentiments of Autism Speaks’ founders have been well documented in the mainstream media. Several of Autism Speaks’ senior leaders have resigned or been fired after founders Bob and Suzanne Wright overruled Autism Speaks’ scientific leadership in order to advance the discredited idea that autism is the result of vaccinations. Furthermore, Autism Speaks has promoted the Judge Rotenberg Center, a Massachusetts facility under Department of Justice and FDA investigation for the use of painful electric shock against its students. The Judge Rotenberg Center’s methods have been deemed torture by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture (p. 84) and are currently the subject of efforts by the Massachusetts state government and disability rights advocates to shut the facility down. Despite this, Autism Speaks has allowed the Judge Rotenberg Center to recruit new admissions from families seeking resources at their fundraising walks.” 
And while the organisation has since distanced itself from both the anti-vaccine movement and the Judge Rotenberg Centre, their engagement with pseudoscientific interventions and hate groups apparently continues. Their regional Resource Guides and their Resource Library include practitioners of, and information about, unproven dietary interventions to alleviate autism “symptoms”. Meanwhile, they attracted attention earlier this year when the Soldiers of Odin, a neo-Nazi group, appeared as a registered team for the 2017 Toronto Autism Speaks Walk. The group’s page was eventually taken down after an outcry from the Autistic, but it is unclear whether any donations from them were accepted or whether they ultimately participated in the walk. 
What we are asking from you
In light of these extensive and substantial concerns, we ask that you discontinue your #KiehlsxAutismSpeaks campaign and the puzzle piece packaging for the Ultra Facial Cream Limited Edition 2017.
We ask that, following consultation with the Autistic community (that is, Autistic people themselves, not parents or other family members, therapists, or researchers), you re-launch your 2017 charitable campaign, with less harmful branding, to benefit an autistic-led organisation that engages in inclusive advocacy.
Finally, we ask that you develop corporate best practices guidelines for charitable campaigns that address marginalised communities, centring the need for (paid) consultation with members of those marginalised communities, and for engagement with organisations that are led by members of the communities that they serve.
- “Hate Map.” Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 08 September 2017 from www.splcenter.org/hate-map
- Rekers, George A., and Ole Ivar Lovaas. “Behavioral treatment of deviant sex-role behaviors in a male child.” Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 7, 2, 1974: 173-90.
- “Howard v. Arkansas – George Rekers Fact Sheet.” American Civil Liberties Union, 2007. Retrieved 08 September 2017 from www.aclu.org/other/howard-v-arkansas-george-rekers-fact-sheet?redirect=lgbt-rights_hiv-aids/howard-v-arkansas-george-rekers-fact-sheet
- MSSNG. “About – MSSNG.” Retrieved 08 September 2017 from www.mss.ng/about
- Sermone, Sandra. “Autism and ADNP syndrome: A genetic search and a biomarker discovery.” Autism Speaks, 2017. Retrieved 08 September 2017 from www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2017/05/04/autism-and-adnp-syndrome-genetic-search-and-biomarker-discovery
- “What Is Autism?” Autism Speaks, 2017. Retrieved 08 September 2017 from www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism
- “Investigating autism’s environmental risk factors.” Autism Speaks, 2017. Retrieved 08 September 2017 from www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2017/02/06/investigating-autisms-environmental-risk-factors
- “Why you need to stop using the puzzle piece to represent autistic people.” Autistic Alex, 2014. Retrieved 08 September 2017 from autisticalex.wordpress.com/2014/04/12/why-you-need-to-stop-using-the-puzzle-piece-to-represent-autistic-people/.
- “Shine a Light on Autism with Rosco Color Filters!” Autism Speaks, 2012. Retrieved 08 September 2017 from www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2012/04/02/shine-light-autism-rosco-color-filters
- Kim, Cynthia. “Hiding in Plain Sight: Diagnosis Barriers for Autistic Women and Girls.” Autism Women’s Network, 2013. Retrieved 08 September 2017 from autismwomensnetwork.org/hiding-in-plain-sight-diagnosis-barriers-for-autistic-women-and-girls/.
- Clark, Nicola. “I was diagnosed with autism in my 40s. It’s not just a male condition.” The Guardian, 30 August 2016. Retrieved 08 September 2017 from www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/30/diagnosed-autism-male-condition-women-misdiagnosed
- Szalavitz, Maia. “Autism – It’s Different in Girls.” Scientific American, 01 March 2017. Retrieved 08 September 2017 from www.scientificamerican.com/article/autism-it-s-different-in-girls/
- Hill, Amelia. “Autism: ‘hidden pool’ of undiagnosed mothers with condition emerging.” The Guardian, 26 December 2016. Retrieved 08 September 2017 from www.theguardian.com/society/2016/dec/26/autism-hidden-pool-of-undiagnosed-mothers-with-condition-emerging
- “2014 Joint Letter to the Sponsors of Autism Speaks.” Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, 2014. Retrieved 08 September 2017 from autisticadvocacy.org/2014/01/2013-joint-letter-to-the-sponsors-of-autism-speaks/.
- Nuer, Teshale. “Autism Speaks: How long does it take to look into it?” NOS magazine, 2017. Retrieved 08 September 2017 from nosmag.org/soldiers-of-odin-autism-speaks-canada-look-into-it/.