Terra Sigillata

RethinkingAutism.com is the brainchild of Dana Commandatore, a friend of one of my high school classmates. Dana is a former NYC advertising guru and the mother of Michaelangelo, a child with autism. His story inspired her to write the children’s book, Michaelangelo the Diver.

Dana has now taken her creativity and contacts in her new home of Los Angeles to produce a series of controversial public service announcements to combat misinformation about the causes and treatment of autism and the acceptance and celebration of neurodiversity. Here is the spirit in which they are presented:

All too often in the world of autism, celebrity and sex appeal are used to promote pseudo-science that exploits autistic people, their family members and the public. We decided to put those very same factors to work in service of the truth.

Just because a person with autism may not speak, it does not mean they have an inferior intellect.

Every reputable study has failed to find a link between vaccines and autism.

Aversives, seclusion and restraint are unacceptable ways to treat a person with autism.

No special diet has been proven to cure autism.

School districts need to support inclusive education.

Learn about the dangers of unnecessary chelation treatments.

We should be more concerned about an autistic individual’s quality of life instead of preventing them from being born.

Listen to self-advocates and learn about neurodiversity. Include the organized community of autistic adults when it comes to making legislation regarding their quality of life.

Positive behavioral supports aimed at stopping harmful behaviors while respecting natural differences are a great way to help autistic people achieve quality of life.

Featuring family friend and model, Leanne Tweeden, Dana and colleagues have now released their five provocative videos at their new site for Rethinking Autism.

Here is the link to the five videos which, for the time being, are embed-disabled.

The following page explains clearly and concisely the messages in each of the five videos.

I hope to have Dana discuss with us her plans for marketing these PSAs and how she will capture data on how this approach might change thinking on misinformation on autism.

Discussions with many of you elsewhere ranged from displeasure with using sex and degradation of women yet again regardless of the message to a supportive “whatever works” sentiment.

For example, my wife, PharmGirl MD, contends that the message would have been more effective with a beefy male hunk since mothers usually make family decisions regarding vaccination. Paging Noah Gray, Toaster Sunshine, Ed Brayton, etc.

Now that the final products have been released, I’m sure that you won’t be bashful in providing your feedback here in the comments below.

[h/t to Patrick O’D for putting Dana in touch with me and megathanks to Dana for giving us and Terra Sig readers the early tip on this effort]


  1. #1 DrugMonkey
    June 19, 2009

    “…and read the many reputable studies..”

    Has potential…

  2. #2 Luna_the_cat
    June 19, 2009

    I hate to say it, but I think the “sexy” nature of these videos is going to be a real turn-off for the “feminist, empowered mom” segment of the population, given their resemblance to real “exploitation of women for sex” videos and issues — and that is very bad, because those “empowered moms” are a big fat target population who you should be reaching.

  3. #3 Lisa
    June 19, 2009

    I had seen these, got the idea, but found myself baffled by the purpose of the sexy “friend.” I know the message is “sex sells, even when you’re buying causes of a medical condition.” But … these feel more like a form of performance art than anything else.

    I’m sure these will generate plenty of conversation… the problem is, I think the conversation will be about the use of sex to “sell” a position on autism, and not about the position itself.


  4. #4 Dawn
    June 19, 2009

    yeah, i don’t really “get” these videos at all. how is this helping? and i’m with PharmGirl that using men might be a better tactic… or what about sexy couples making the “right” decisions together?

  5. #5 Anonymous
    June 19, 2009

    I also think they are obnoxious. On the other hand, let’s not forget that Jenny McC seems to have plenty of sway among “feminist empowered moms” and she’s got, oh, at least a couple of things in common with the model in the video.

  6. #6 Darcie
    June 19, 2009

    From the point of view of someone who considers herself s feminist, I understand why the initial reaction might be “why use sex to sell a position on autism?” But I think we are missing the point. It seems to me that the vary purpose of the campaign is to not to reach the “feminist, empowered mom” who probably understands the science on vaccines and autism. Instead, I think the goal is to reach those who have already been swayed by the “sex sells” thing in the form of the misinformation campaign of Jenny McCarthy. I hope these ads help to get a conversation started. Looks like they are already getting some attention. http://www.vanityfair.com/online/culture/2009/06/18/if-only-your-doctor-dressed-like-this-too.html

  7. #7 Omphaloskepsis
    June 19, 2009

    I didn’t think the purpose of having attractive women in commercials was sex, it was for the female consumer to see herself in the model’s position. “She’s good-looking, she uses Product X, I will use Product X because I associate it with this model whom I would like to resemble.”

    If this is so, the commercials make perfect sense. Parents of kids with autism ‘identify’ with McCarthy because she has a child with autism (supposedly) and subconsciously because she’s attractive and relatively successful (pretty much a C-lister, but the instinct to pay attention to the rich and popular is deeply ingrained).

    The commercials using the model break the mold of what you’d expect to see portrayed in a commercial about autism – namely, kids with scary symptoms and worried, frazzled parents. It makes autism look more like everyone’s problem rather than that of special interest groups alone. The eye-catching model could be the sister or friend or coworker of someone with autism, or a mental health professional. She could merely be a caring human being who is concerned about the misinformation out there. She could be someone with high functioning autism herself! We’re much harder to spot.

    In short, I like the ads.

  8. #8 cm
    June 19, 2009

    The ads are just dopey as all get out.

  9. #9 bluefoot
    June 19, 2009

    I think the videos are pretty lame, and obnoxious. These might be more effective a little tongue in cheek rather than straight-up “sexy”.
    The message (information about autism) and the medium (teh sexxxy) have no connection at all, which makes the ads more mystifying than informative.
    I also think they send the wrong message – the subtext seems to be that the point the ads are trying to convey is so weak that hit-you-over-the-head “sexiness” is necessary to get attention/add weight.

  10. #10 Comrade PhysioProf
    June 19, 2009

    Here’s an autistic blogger who seems to approve:


  11. #11 Kurt
    June 20, 2009

    I think Dana has totally missed the obvious approach if she wants to use sex appeal to promote her message. Remember how, a generation ago, Brooke Shields caused a stir by posing semi-nude in jean ads? Or how Calvin Klein gave Rudy Giuliani fits with their peek-a-boo underwear ads? What we need here, obviously, are *sexy autistic teens* to sell the message!


    Or maybe the whole idea of using sex to pitch this particular message is just stupid?

  12. #12 Kurt
    June 20, 2009

    Seriously, though… Leanne is an attractive person who seems to have a strong screen presence. Why not just have her sit, fully clothed, next to her child and face the camera and say whatever the message is? That would be an order of magnitude more effective than those videos.

    The problem is not coming up with some gimmick to get attention. The problem is *money* to pay to get airtime to broadcast the message. Jenny gets free airtime in the middle of the day on broadcast TV by virtue of being a celebrity who looks good in front of a camera. To counter that, you need to find a way to get equivalent exposure, but not by doing goofy stuff. Aren’t there any other daytime talk show hosts who are more understanding of what evidence-based medicine is? Get someone like Leanne to go on TV and tell her story, and audiences will respond.

  13. #13 Joe
    June 20, 2009

    Sorry; but the ads are “duds” to me. Who is/are the supposed audience? I know how desperate people can latch on to nonsense in the hope of relief. My heart goes out to the family that thought those videos were useful.

  14. #14 jlorraine
    June 20, 2009

    “I hate to say it, but I think the “sexy” nature of these videos is going to be a real turn-off for the “feminist, empowered mom” segment of the population”

    This – is totally true. The audience is obviously misunderstood. The mothers who are not vaccinating ARE educated. Most of those who choose elective vac schedules or non at all usually are not the run of the mill, Kraft Cheese eating, media obsessed crowd. They are the educated, controversy wary, well meaning but misguided moms. They are the ones who will breastfeed at any cost, will work to make a VBAC happen regardless of the possible complications, make their own baby food because they want to know where the veggies came from, they are the ones who proudly wear their babies in slings – they are well meaning parents. The problem is, the culture and vigor to push against mainstream media, is SO strong, and VERY um shall I dare say sexy, that this group is growing like mad. If you read any mothering online forum you will see this in full vigor. These parents, who do try, who do feel like the are educated, actually ARE educated enough to see these ads for what they are – a stunt.

    To bad they couldn’t be more creative to reach the real audience.

  15. #15 Joe
    June 21, 2009

    At the JRef forum forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=146034 the response is mixed. Someone suggested the ads make more sense if one is current on Jenny McCarthy’s antics (I am not).

  16. #16 justamom
    June 22, 2009

    Reality is, most parents with a child with autism has many more important things to do than dress in a slinky outfit strutting around. The message should be helping other parents find time to do something they like when they “have time alone”. The message in each video isn’t even anything knew and it’s opinionated than it is helping the misinformation. For instance, a ‘pet peeve’ among other unrelated things is chelation. Also “there is no diet that cures autism” is all opinion without offering true facts and related studies to support that opinion. Tongue-in-cheek? It’s more like a D for disgustingly using autism and those children to play dress-up.

  17. #17 Toaster
    June 22, 2009

    I understand that these ads have to be short, but even so it seems to me that they’re not covering much material at all in them. If they adjusted the information:shots of teh sexy more evenly I believe maybe the ads would be more useful.

    What may be needed is a sexy geeky authority figure (a sexy male nerd? Such as Toaster?) to simply speak plainly and in a way that is not condescending with accurate information. And leaving it at commercials won’t be enough: you need to establish a spokesperson for rationality as a brand. Put them in the commercials, air them, then get them onto televised debates with antivaxxers and the forces of irrationality in health care. There is so much potential here that it is unfortunate to see the science reduced so much.

  18. #18 Joe
    June 24, 2009

    I called these PSAs “nonsense,” and I regret being so insultingly direct; I was sincere in my statement that my heart goes out to families in trouble. (My best friend’s son (named after me) had a congenital problem that killed him at age 20- I do know what it means to have a child with a serious medical problem in the family.)

    My objection to the PSAs is that while they run ca. 22 seconds, most of that time (20 secs) is devoted to a totally-irrelevant>, scantily-clad woman. The point of each PSA (1- vaccines don’t cause autism; 2- inclusive education; 3- self-advocacy / neurodiversity; 4- chelation; and 5- the fact that no diet cures autism) flash on the screen for a mere 2 seconds.

    At the JRef link I posted (above) one parent of a child with autism wondered what chelation is. I wonder what self-advocacy and neurodiversity refer to. Some people have observed that ‘inclusive education’ is not necessarily a good thing.

    If I were making a PSA, I would want the message to be the center of the piece. Autism is a serious problem, and I don’t think it was treated sufficiently seriously (educationally) in the PSAs.

  19. #19 zayzayem
    June 24, 2009

    These PSAs fall flat on their face.

    They fail to provide an adequate message and miss their target audience entirely.

    You have a scantily clad, mute hottie flaunting herself at the camera while text flows along side. Great for selling male deodorant or a phone sex line to neanderthal males – not good for targetting healthcare and social messages to self-empowered mothers.

    Yes, hot females can be used to target young self-empowered mothers (by virtue of the “I wish I was in their shoes”) – but these figures should create empathy with the viewer – I don’t know how a mute lingerie model is empathetic with Mom #3 – look at cosmetics advertisements, the models are hardly ever merely mute eye candy – they are spokesmodels, they are active and they are engaging.

    @Joe above me. I think the lack of information is deliberate to get people to visit the website to get more information. However I think some further referencing wouldn’t go astray in teh interests of ethical advertising (if we don’t reference, why should we expect our opponents to?)

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