Katherine Sanders: Children, safe spaces and you

Katherine Sanders, who was diagnosed with aspergers/autism aged 44 and has a nine-year-old daughter with the same condition, pleads for consideration in outdoor advertising and promotions

"FEEL free to write to the council madam, I’m just trying to run a business. You’ll see the same in the shops and outside Edinburgh Dungeon."

"It’s my busiest time of year [Halloween] you can’t expect me to change the display and lose trade."

"I wish I could help [complaint about Fringe posters to councillor] but there’s nothing I can do, I’m a family man myself, I understand. There’s nothing we can do."

Every time I go into the city centre, my autistic nine-year-old buries her head into my side and won’t look out on two of the main streets, and when coming out of the train station we can only turn in one direction. 

These are the responses I’ve had when asking politely to remove plastic severed heads on display or have ghoulish figures in coffins in shop windows or posters of blood-soaked terrified actors removed from view in Edinburgh, touted as a popular and child-friendly city. 

"It’s a toy, it’s amusing, don’t raise your voice to me while I explain to you madam" - the severed plastic head, complete with vertebrae, staring white eyes and bloodied scalp of white ragged hair rotates in the summer wind in full view of children of all ages and sizes, little boys' eyes being drawn to the gaping, blood-soaked mouth. 

I may have said a mild swear word when it was absolutely clear he wouldn’t even consider my request.

What was my request? That the horrific, tortured head which was advertising a "tour" be taken down until 9pm, a recognised nominal "watershed" when children are not expected to be outdoors or watching adult TV. 

The main tourist street, the high street, in our capital city is a no-go zone for us. Why would I ask this? Why not just turn away, if I don’t like it?

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Because every time I go into the city centre, my autistic nine-year-old buries her head into my side and won’t look out on two of the main streets, and when coming out of the train station we can only turn in one direction. 

She repeatedly asks if we are past it, if it’s there, if it’s still up, what’s in the window, what’s on the walls, is there blood, are the eyes red, are they past yet. During the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, we have to go and check the posters alone so we can navigate around town. It rarely works but we try. She then frets and worries, has nightmares, and wakes even more often at night. 

Autism tends to walk hand in hand with anxiety. Verbal or not, our autistic children generally have a higher 'background level' of anxiety than their neurotypical peers. The presence of a learning disability has nothing to do with how severe autism’s impact is or not. 

Autism tends to walk hand in hand with anxiety. Verbal or not, our autistic children generally have a higher 'background level' of anxiety than their neurotypical peers.

In fact, I often think that so-called 'high functioning' (and that’s a whole ball of string that needs throwing in the bin, not untangling) autistics are disadvantaged by our ability to express anxiety and yet not control it. It doesn’t stop when you magically turn 18.

The recent National Autistic Society advertising campaign, 'Too Much Information', showed a boy in a shopping centre, illustrating the chaos and noise and tutting strangers and overwhelming amount of information that is experienced without the filters of a neurotypical or non-autistic brain. 

In spite of the issues many of us in the autistic community have with the unrelenting stereotypes presented as autism in the media ('The A Word', 'The Curious Case' etc. 'Rain Man' I suppose had an adult although yup, still male and white) it was the closest I’ve seen to how impossible it can be to filter things out, especially once we’ve tripped the panic button. 

We’re fortunate. Really fortunate. Our girl has no serious learning issues, she can communicate her feelings and thoughts very clearly indeed and she is a bright, engaging girl - who happens to be autistic. Like her mum. I’m not asking for any sympathy. I’m not asking for special treatment. It’s not even really about autism, or us, although I’d like there to be some discussion about how public spaces have an impact on our ability to take part in society.

What I’d like to do is start a discussion about how we manage the images our children see when they take their part in the daily life of our country and what we do when, as I’ve experienced, there are vastly inappropriate things on display that we just cannot avoid. 

What I’d like to do is start a discussion about how we manage the images our children see when they take their part in the daily life of our country.

Ask any parent about managing our digital exposure, about YouTube, about music videos, about the content of games and apps, about the unrelenting demand for communication by children of all ages, and you’ll hear the same thing: they are swamped. No matter where we turn, there are things we’d rather our kids didn’t have to deal with until they’re old enough to make the choice about viewing them.

It’s not the same as boys hiding a magazine and sharing it at school; it’s not the same as girls passing chain letters along or copying the Spice Girls; it’s not the same as kids watching Jaws on scratchy Betamax when their parents went down the bowling club. 

Kids today are 'digital natives' and are immersed in the current of global communication and trends in a way most adults can’t imagine. It’s part of their world. While lots of research has been carried out on the exposure of pre-teen girls to sexualised imagery, clothing and literature in their magazines (a noticeable effect), and a moderate amount of research has looked at the impact of violent computer games on boys (not much), I’ve struggled to find papers on how the exposure to images of horror and violence are perceived by children in general, when it’s as part of the wider environment. 

It’s not the sort of thing you can easily measure in a quantitative questionnaire - children are pretty tricky subjects - and qualitative data requires a lot of time, patience and funding. Frankly, I don’t think many research bodies are that interested in such a nebulous topic.

So there’s no psychologist thumping a large research paper onto the table of local authorities or government and saying that it’s not healthy for children to see images that would be classified as '18' in a film when going about their daily life, or that we need to have guidelines about what shops can and cannot display in their windows or that plays, shows or films need some limits set on what can be in their posters without automatically making it all about sex. 

What are the standards of acceptability in public displays and who sets them? If not the businesses, if not the councils, then who? 

To be honest, most children are pretty sanguine about semi-bare women and men (although my girl objects strongly to male 'taps aff' as it’s not acceptable for women to do the same, so that’s just unfair). 

Does that mean we just roll with it? We just shrug and write it off to 'business'? Do we accept zombies and corpses and bloody heads waving in the breeze at the height of the festival or in windows at Halloween as just wallpaper? 

I think most people don’t notice now but we do, we care, we notice and I think it’s worth caring about. I think that the human brain is a remarkable organ which retains almost every experience it has, although most of us filter them out. 

What are the standards of acceptability in public displays and who sets them? If not the businesses, if not the councils, then who? 

In these days of discussing safe spaces in schools for LGBTI young people, of safe spaces for women, who is looking out for children in the wider public spaces they have as much right to be safe in as we do?

Picture courtesy of Katherine Sanders

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