Sia’s new movie “Music” has just joined the long list of films that embarrassingly contribute to the under representation of actually autistic people in media. On November 19th, Sia released the trailer for her film, “Music” depicting the neurotypical, able bodied actress Maddie Ziegler playing the role of Music, a non speaking autistic girl. Autism and disability is heavily under represented in media, with GLAAD’s “Where We Are On TV” report in 2019 stating that the number of characters with a disability on TV was 3.1%. Additionally, in 2016, a study was released, by Ruderman White Paper, that stated 95% of characters with disabilities are played by able bodied actors. Therefore, as a young autistic person myself, it is clear to me that when telling stories about autistic people, it is essential to approach them correctly and with sensitivity, by including and casting autistic people. However, Sia did not do this.
Maddie Ziegler, who portrays Music, said in an interview that “To prepare, she studied documentaries about autism and watched YouTube videos by parents who recorded their child’s episodes.” These YouTube videos are widely viewed by the autistic community as cruel and exploitative recordings of autistic people’s sufferings for the profit of non autistic people, so in seeing that this was part of the research process for Music, it is hard to believe this movie could be done properly. Rightfully so, many have expressed their upset towards Sia on Twitter, however her responses have only reinstated the painful ableism perpetuated throughout the industry that blocks autistic people from entering the world of media. When told that several autistic actors would have happily played the role of Music at short notice but no effort to include autistic people was actually made, Sia responded “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.” This arguably ableist response echoes continuous ableism: the belief that autistic people are not working in the sector because they simply cannot do it, while ignoring the systemic exclusion of autistic people that does not allow them to reach the opportunities Maddie Ziegler, for example, has reached. In the UK, a 2016 report by The National Autistic Society, showed that only 16% of autistic people were in full-time paid work, even though 77% want to work but were not given the opportunities to. Sia claimed that casting an autistic person was “cruel and not kind” and that she “made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community.” Yet when we see that so many autistic people do want to work, this executive decision seems more self serving rather than truthful to the actual feelings of autistic people that she is representing.
When you have decided that you are going to give yourself the task of representing an incredibly under represented group, as Sia decided to do, you have an enormous responsibility, and your main focus should be on creating the most accurate representation that you can. Therefore to achieve this aim, criticism from the people you seek to represent should be welcomed as ultimately, it will make your work better. Yet, Sia’s seemingly ableist replies to actually autistic people shows that this was never her aim with “Music”. Rather, her responses show an display of self preservation, which raises the question: did Sia really want to positively tell autistic stories or did she just want to profit from autism? The casting of an already popular actress, instead of an autistic actress, who would likely be unknown due to the exclusion of autistic people in media, shows representation was not a main focus. Maddie Ziegler has a large following and will undoubtedly bring fans to the cinemas and generate a profit, but surely that isn’t what this movie should be about? Having a non autistic actor simulate autistic movements and stimming is offensive. The commodification of autistic people’s actions for profit and poor inspiration porn is a cruel and ableist treatment of autistic people. It comes across as a push to pander towards systemically ableist institutions for award grabs, which once again shows the lack of care for actual autistic people in making this movie.
Moreover, Sia’s casting choices aren’t the only indicator that autistic people were not the focus of this movie, as Autism Speaks were allowed to contribute to the film. Autism Speaks are a charity that promotes ABA, and searches for a “cure” for autism, instead of supporting autistic people (read more here). When in April, this was brought to Sia’s attention she said “I will look into it further”, however she went ahead with their contributions and stated that “I had no idea it was such a polarising group!” If she truly did spend three years researching, as she claims, why did she not know Autism Speaks are bad? If she spent three years researching, why when faced with real autistic voices does she respond with confrontation rather than openness to advocate for good autistic representation? Someone who had truly researched disability and autism would not say “I’ve never referred to music as disabled. Special abilities is what I’ve always said,” as a majority of the disabled community resents the phrase “special abilities” being substituted for “disabled.” Her arguably ableist mentality that still remains after three supposed years of research shows a total lack of care for true autistic representation and more of a care for her own profit from autistic lives.
Autistic people’s stories deserve to be told, and they deserve to be told by autistic people. Sia does not speak for us, yet her values are hurtful, especially when broadcast to the world in cinema. Allowing “Music” to be released will harm the autistic community, as it reinforces ableism that is so embedded into society. It promotes the ideologies that disabled people are not valuable enough to perform our own stories, and continues the normalisation of exclusion of disabled people. Accommodation of disabled people is essential, and continuing the idea that it is too difficult will intensify the normalisation of ableism in society. Autistic people are valuable and our stories matter.
My name is Maisie and I am a 17 year old autistic person who likes to write about autism in the media!