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An actually autistic person responds to Sia’s controversial new film Music

Sia’s film, which stars Maddie Ziegler as a non-speaking autistic girl, is a wake-up call to address ableism in the arts

The trailer for musician Sia’s upcoming film about a non-speaking autistic girl, Music, has caused controversy, given that neither Sia nor lead actor Maddie Ziegler are autistic. 

We may only have the trailer, but the ableist gaze is pretty clear. Music (Maddie Ziegler)’s story is not told from her perspective, but from that of her sister Zu (Kate Hudson) and Zu’s friend Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.). Ebo explains that she “can understand everything you are saying to her” and “sees the world in a completely different way from us”. Music’s lines in the trailer are limited – “I am happy”, she says via Augmentative and Alternative Communication, a form of communication for non-speaking people  that doesn’t use oral speech, and can include using an app like Music does, gesturing, or typing. What we see is a drastic oversimplification of what AAC users are capable of communicating. It’s unsettling to watch Ziegler recreate the characteristic movements that many autistic people are criticised for expressing and forced to mask by society. Why are autistic people shamed for being themselves, but a neurotypical actor gets rewarded for inaccurately and reductively assuming an autistic identity?

It demonstrates how disabled people’s stories are continuously exploited for entertainment and told through an ableist gaze. I’m tired of actors who don’t have the relevant disability “cripping up” and taking roles away from already underemployed disabled performers. Regardless of intentions, Sia’s film is a painful blow to autistic – and especially non-speaking autistic – people. This is a wake-up call for the arts and performance industry to address its rampant ableism.

While more autism representation is needed to facilitate acceptance and understanding, inauthentic and inaccurate representation for the abled gaze is harmful. It perpetuates reductive, othering stereotypes, exploiting autistic people for feel-good “inspiration porn” or comedic value. Extracting autistic stories for profit says that while our stories are valuable, we aren’t.

Sia’s glaring lack of autism knowledge highlights the paucity of meaningful autistic community input, and it’s played out across multiple exchanges on Twitter. In a series of Tweets, she uses reductive “functioning” language, which ignores that autism is a spectrum not a linear scale and that functioning is contextual. She also says “special needs” instead of “disabled”, which is infantilising and erases society’s role in disabling people. Further, Sia naively cites Autism Speaks’ endorsement of the film, a controversial group that treats autism as a disease to be eradicated, rather than a valid neurotype. What’s more, to prepare for the role, Ziegler revealed watching videos of autistic people’s vulnerable meltdowns that had been shared online without consent. These harmful oversights could have been avoided by employing and working closely with autistic people.

“Extracting autistic stories for profit says that while our stories are valuable, we aren’t”

Sia’s dismissive and defensive responses to the inevitable backlash from autistic people for her casting decisions shows that authentic autistic representation was not her priority. While she attempted to hire a non-speaking autistic lead, Sia stated that they found what was likely a principally inaccessible environment “unpleasant and stressful”. Instead of accommodating the actor’s needs, she asserted it was “cruel, not kind” for someone at the character’s “level of functioning” to play the role. She also dismissed autistic actors who responded to her on Twitter, remarking “maybe you’re just a bad actor”.

Only a non-speaking autistic actor would have the vital lived experience needed to portray the role effectively. If it was too difficult for them, it calls into question the role’s accuracy – as one tweet highlights, the busy, brightly coloured musical dance is inconsistent for Music’s character who likely has apraxia and intense sensory sensitivities. Given how social scripts and masking can make everyday a performance, autistic people are also often well-equipped actors. Yet the only neurodiverse actors appear in supporting roles – “not as fucking prostitutes or drug addicts but as doctors, nurses, and singers”, she added. This not only disrespects other marginalised identities but also implies that the bar is so low that even in a story about neurodiverse people, we should be grateful for tokenistic inclusion.

Sia’s film ‘Music’ is the latest in decades of reductive and stigmatising representations of autistic people – from Rain Man and Atypical to All In A Row. The characters follow similar tropes; strangely obsessive, unempathetic, and socially awkward. Rare real-life representation only shows autistic people struggling to “find love”. While it is notable that Music is an autistic girl and AAC user, will the character have the significant depth to meaningfully dismantle stereotypes? When neurotypicals control how autistic people are presented this often overlooks the variety of autistic spectrum experiences, which intersect with other identities and co-existing disabilities. This causes many autistic people to be invalidated with comments like “you don’t look autistic” and prevented from accessing the support, acceptance and community they need to feel understood, valued and respected.

We need complex autistic characters that represent the autistic people authentically, with sufficient depth and diversity. These will broaden what people think being autistic can look like and present our behaviour as understandable and within the context of an ableist society. Only autistic people have the knowledge to create these meaningful representations and we need to be closely involved in writing these stories – the #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs hashtag on social media champions this. According to a 2019 report by GLAAD, only 3.1 per cent of characters on TV are disabled, while 95 per cent of characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors. Inclusivity also rests on the industry’s accessibility – without accommodations autistic people will continue to be excluded. Individual disability needs will vary, but specific adjustments could include providing unambiguous communication, a quiet corner and rest breaks, and adaptations to production schedules to accommodate daily workable hour limits.

The marginalisation of disabled people in society runs deep, and it’s important that the arts and performance sector supports rather than further exploits disabled identities. As autistic actor Mickey Rowe highlights: “inclusion in the arts matters because it leads to inclusion in life”.