Singer Sia’s directorial debut ‘Music’ is facing criticism for its portrayal of a character on the autistic spectrum. Many autism rights activists and people with autism are upset at the stereotypical portrayal and that the role was essayed by neurotypical actor Maddie Ziegler.
Many in the autism community refer to people without a developmental disorder as neurotypical, which is an abbreviation of neurologically typical meaning people with typical developmental, cognitive and intellectual skills, reports Healthline.
Sia’s trailer released on 19 November and many were upset that the role was not given to an autistic actor as historically, disabled actors have not been represented authentically in film and media, reported Variety.
The hashtag Nothing About Us Without Us is a famous disability rights slogan on the idea that any policy or story about a group needs to be made with the full representation and participation of the group.
The controversy on the film raised important questions on representation, authenticity and inclusion. Why is it that films tell the stories of diverse people but cast neurotypical actors? When will disabled people get their due in entertainment?
Many autistic people took to social media to explain their hurt and frustration. The Youtube Chanel ‘Austic Allie’ said,
“Thumbs up for featuring a female autistic child as a main character. But many thumbs down for not having an autistic actor, it diminishes our world. Very wrong”Youtube
Hannah Marshall, an autistic woman from North Carolina, USA has created an online petition to cancel the film. It’s already reached 600 people as of Wednesday afternoon.
Marshal wrote, “It is extremely offensive to myself and other autistic individuals. Sia has shown no remorse for her inaccurate and hurtful betrayal of the community.” Many self-identifying autistic people in the comments said the trailer offended them with many saying, “this is wrong.”
Sia Defends Her Film
On the Friday that the trailer dropped, Sia responded to comments by disability activists on social media, sticking by her film despite criticism by the very members of the community she was trying to represent. She was called out for using the phrase “special abilities” instead of “disabled” for people with autism and for her casting choice.
Sia added that she tried auditioning a “beautiful young girl non-verbal on the spectrum until she “found [the project] unpleasant and stressful.” This reply did not reduce any fears of misrepresentation with many autistic actors replied that Sia was making unfair, stereotypical assumptions about the community and that autism exists on a spectrum and she did not try hard enough to find a suitable actor.
Estelle Olivia tweeted, “I’m a neurodivergent actor and writer with an MFA from a prestigious program. I know myself and plenty of other autistic actors and writers (many of whom are in this thread) would kill for a lead role in a star-studded film.”
Another actor tweeted,
Sia’s responses belie an unwillingness to understand the criticism.
A film on an autistic person could have been a change for the singer-director to collaborate with the community, learn from each other and bust some myths associated with autism. Instead, it seems like she has chosen to speak for the community.
Autism spectrum disorder is a broad term used to describe a group of people with neurodevelopmental disorders. It’s a complex, layered condition with people exisiting in various places on the spectrum, and yet a common stereotype is that autistic people don't show much emotion or empathy and fixate on things. Understanding the nuances of the condition would help neurotypicals understand autistic people better.
How disabilities are depicted can influence societal attitudes and so these portrayals matter immensely.
Sia’s film also stars Kate Hudson and Leslie Odom Jr and is slated to release in February 2021.