Sunday, May 18, 2008


The following observations are not scientific in the least. But from a marketing point of view, I have noticed a very intriguing phenomenon arising out of the general discussions about autism treatments:

Although there are many different approaches to responding to autism, especially for young children, it appears these approaches can be divided roughly into four camps:

The Pharmacology Camp: Risperdal, Abilify, or other medications are used to control the symptoms of autism.

The ABA Camp: Applied behavioral analysis, sometimes intensive (at least 40 hours per week is often cited as essential), is administered for the purpose of teaching life skills and common behaviors.

The Biomedical Camp: An assortment of possible interventions—such as methyl-B12 shots, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, gluten free/casein free diets, chelation therapy, and so on—are given to children for the purpose of curing the perceived biomedical foundations of autism.

The Acceptance Camp: The child’s autism is accepted as a viable, alternative condition, needing only occasional and directed support—such as occupational therapy, alternative communication devices, etc.—to help respond to sensory issues, motor skill problems or developmental delays.

Each camp has its ardent supporters, and as a side effect, each camp will sometimes attack the underlying assumptions of the other three, but the Acceptance Camp holds an asymmetrical position in this free-for-all, because its main premise stands as a direct and serious challenge to the more basic assumption underlying the other three camps as a whole. The other three camps, whatever their differences may be, are all grounded in the fundamental axiom that autism is a dire condition in need of swift and intensive correction. For instance, proponents of the Pharmacology Camp will often describe how nightmarish the autistic behaviors have become, to justify the admittedly serious step of resorting to powerful drugs. The ABA Camp, often trying to encourage support for public funding, will raise the argument that ABA is “medically necessary” and must be provided early and often in order to be effective. And finally the Biomedical Camp is prone to employ such phrases as “toxic,” “poisoned,” and “train wreck,” to describe presumably sick children desperately in need of biomedical treatment.

Only the Acceptance Camp challenges the basic premise that autism is a dire condition, promoting instead that while sometimes challenging, autism need not be ultimately debilitating, and furthermore has positive compensations that can result in extremely strong outcomes for any given autistic individual.

To counter this fundamental attack from the Acceptance Camp, the remaining three camps resort to what I can only describe as a very strange marketing tactic. They do not generally respond to the attack by saying, for instance, that children exposed to the Acceptance Camp are in danger of having very poor outcomes—becoming institutionalized, etc.—they generally respond by stating that the children who are exposed to the Acceptance Camp are the ones who are not all that autistic (i.e., have mild symptoms, are diagnosed with distant “cousins” of autism, etc.). In effect, the parents and proponents of the other three camps reply to the Acceptance Camp by saying, “Sure, you can afford to be accepting of your child’s autism, because your child does not have the severe issues our child has. We on the other hand do not have the luxury of such acceptance—take a look, our child is in desperate need of his interventions—so we are going to continue with his treatment of … “.

This domain-shifting response is actually quite understandable—the assumptions of the Acceptance Camp, as well as the examples of children with positive outcomes within that camp, are indeed a serious challenge to the basic premise underlying the philosophies of the other three camps. But from a marketing point of view, this counterattack sounds exceedingly strange. If an outsider were to come to this debate as a potential client for one of the four camps, and were checking to see which camp was providing the best results, he would find himself face-to-face with a unique sales campaign. For not only is the Acceptance Camp tooting its own horn about the positive outcomes of its own product, what is quite astonishing, the competitors are readily agreeing. It is as if Honda were to run a television commercial touting the effectiveness of its own automobiles, and right afterwards General Motors, Ford and Chrysler all came on to wholly concur: “Well, sure, if it’s good gas mileage, high resale value and safe driving you are accustomed to, then perhaps Honda might work out for you—consider yourself lucky. Now on the other hand, if poor performance and costly repairs are all you’ve ever had in mind, come take a test drive with us—we might have just the car for you.” It is a branding strategy I am sure I have never seen before.

As I said at the outset, these observations are not scientific—debates, arguments and descriptions from the four camps have nothing to do with the outcome for any particular autistic individual. But I must say, in all my experience, this is the first time I have ever known the marketing point of view to be so exceptionally illuminating.

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