The Girl in This Jarring Autism PSA Used the Ad to Reveal Her Own Autism to Classmates

A plea for more patience

A deliberately grating new PSA is trying to help people better understand what it’s like to be autistic, by illustrating the sensory overload that a 12-year-old girl with the developmental disability experiences regularly.

As Holly—a real schoolgirl living with autism in the U.K.—gets on the bus in the morning, a series of interactions that might seem innocuous to a person without autism begin to pile up. She struggles to process them quickly, and others lose patience.

Before long, she’s being haunted by an army of ghosts barking questions, while the stimuli begin to pour in, overwhelming her, and setting her on a path toward a meltdown.

It’s the latest awareness ad in the “Too Much Information” campaign from the British advocacy group National Autistic Society (NAS) and London agency Don’t Panic. Last year’s spot similarly featured a young boy on a trip to a shopping mall with his mother, as he tried to take in the deluge of sights, sounds and smells without becoming overwhelmed.

Previous efforts from the nonprofit have also sought to recreate the sensory intensity of being autistic, which is generally ill understood, and the root cause of episodes that observers often mistake for temper tantrums.

While mainly an empathy-inducing dramatization of the chaos that can take over an autistic person’s daily life, the new ad, titled “Make It Stop,” also seeks to educate audiences broadly on what they can do to help people with autism avoid sensory overload. That might mean allowing extra time for an autistic person to answer a question, or if someone is having a meltdown, ask if they are OK and create a calm safe space to help them recover.

There are also a number of techniques to help if someone is showing signs of anxiety pre-meltdown, during what experts call the “rumble stage.”

It also has some practical utility for Holly herself, who shared the film with her school during an assembly on World Autism Awareness Day this past Sunday. This was “to tell friends and classmates about her autism for the very first time,” as the NAS puts it, and help the people in her immediate circle better grasp their part in her experiences, and the small changes in their behavior that might help her better integrate socially.

As for the process of making the ad itself, Christopher Ross-Kellam, the Don’t Panic creative lead on the project, emphasized the balance between an effective metaphor—the cacophonous ghosts of Holly’s interactions over the course of the day—and an honest depiction of life with autism.

“We needed to find a way to visually represent a struggle that was otherwise invisible—to depict this battle with insufficient processing time in an emotional way, while staying true to the experience,” he says in a statement. To that end, “we made sure that each stage of the creative process was tested on, and run by, an autistic adult and/or child.’ “

Client: National Autistic Society
National Campaign Manager: Jessica Leigh
Head of Campaigns and Public Engagement: Tom Purser

Agency: Don’t Panic
Project Lead: Helen Jackson
Project Assist: Robyn Kasozi & Angela Kwashie
Strategy: Ellie Moore
Creative Lead: Christopher Ross-Kellam
Creative: George McCallum, Alistair Griggs, Tom Loader
MD: Joe Wade

Production: Knucklehead
Director: Tomas Mankovsky
Producer: Francis Mildmay-White
Production Manager: Cat Irving
DOP: James Blann
Production Designer: Sam Tidman
Editor: Tim Hardy @ Stitch Editing
Grade: Simon Bourne @ Framestore
Post: nineteentwenty
Sound Design: Tom Joyce @ Soundcanvas
Casting: Sophie North Casting & Hammond & Cox Casting

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@GabrielBeltrone Gabriel Beltrone is a frequent contributor to Adweek.