ADVERTISING NEEDS AUTISM

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With only 16 percent of adults with autism in full-time employment, is it time for agencies to open up their doors to the neurodiverse? asks Alice Franklin, Strategy Intern at BBH.

Illustration by Asa Nowers.

It wasn’t until I was 23 that I was diagnosed with Asperger’s but to be honest, it hardly came as a surprise. About 20 percent of people with Tourette’s (another thing I have) are on the spectrum, and I’d been missing social cues, taking things literally, and getting obsessively interested in things since forever.

But when I was diagnosed, instead of feeling relieved that I was not alone in finding humans confusing as fuck, I was left feeling a bit, well, unemployable. I had just graduated, and couldn’t imagine who would want to employ an autistic Tourettic who couldn’t sit still or read someone’s body language.

In truth, I wanted to work in advertising, but from what I’d been told, you needed communication skills, social dexterity and the ability to understand human behaviour innately. But I didn’t understand anything innately. I just didn’t get people. Why they lie all the time. Why they pretend to be people they’re not. Why they litter. What the hell they mean by that facial expression.

Given that I’ve got twenty-five years’ experience of it, I can speak with some authority about Asperger’s. But as I’ve only had a couple of weeks here at BBH, the idea of me speaking with any authority about advertising is somewhat laughable.

But, nevertheless, might I suggest that advertising agencies need people with autism?

Sure, autistic people might not understand that idiom straight away, might neglect small talk, and might forget your face even if we’ve met a hundred times.

But we can remember and retain tiny details most neurotypicals forget, we can concentrate on tasks for hours on end. And forget the media stereotype of the socially reclusive and uncreative autistic – I love going out, and people with autism can be creative as hell. After all, we are wired differently, we think outside of the box all the time, because for us, the box doesn’t even exist.

Unfortunately, for many people with autism, interviews are a nightmare, and inaccessible application processes must be part of the reason only 16 percent of adults with autism are in full-time work.

No exaggeration – it took me years of bombing interviews to get the knack. I had to learn to look interviewers in the eye, to say more than one-word answers, to steer the conversation to places I wanted to talk about. None of this was innate. I had to learn it, slowly and painfully, taking years of rejection whilst I worked in a bar – a job where a decent memory for cocktail specs was required, and an interview was not.

But if ad agencies were to hire more autistic people, shake up their application processes to make them friendlier for people on the spectrum, it’s the autistics who’d be doing the agencies a favour, not the other way around. Advertising needs people who think differently. Autistic people are just that.

5 Responses

  1. Hello Alice,

    Thank you for sharing. My son John was diagnosed with Asperger’s almost 14 years ago, he’s about to turn 20. I often think there are so many ways he would excel in advertising. ( as well as many other fields ) His ability to retain the the smallest of details and drive to achieve perfection are incredible. He is quite brilliant, but at times socially awkward. I found your article inspiring, as my wife and I hope he finds his way to success and happiness.
    Best wishes to you moving forward.
    J Connolly , Director of Studio Operations, BBH NY

  2. Thanks for sharing Alice
    I am a mother of a son on the spectrum who was so high functioning he wasn’t diagnosed until he was 19 and burned out at university leading to anxiety and depression – fast forward 5 years he is a college grad with an advertising and marketing degree successfully working with me at MY company ( a production agency ) handling social media accounts, general admin and supporting my staff with preparing presentations and just about anything he is asked. I have had him tackle writing projects for client blogs and social posts and he is great at that. He just isn’t that guy to stand up and do the snazzy presentations. My heart broke multiple times watching him try to get work after graduation as he could never get past the interview process despite my connections which were considerable after 20+ years in the industry. Our industry is not friendly toward these types of minds and it is truly sad. I joke with my husband that I started the company for him and there is a grain of truth there. The worst part is he would be so valuable to any organization and has the chops to progress and contribute with loyalty and passion in his own way. There is so much to do and I applaud BBH for taking that step. Lastly, I applaud you for writing this! My best wishes for your future successes!

  3. Thanks Alice
    Loved your piece. It challenged my perception of people with Aspergers and instead of issues I now see opportunities.
    Strength through diversity.
    BBH as an organisation continues to inspire and impress in equal measure.
    Good luck!

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