Diversity includes disability, and if anyone says otherwise, it’s time for them to face the music.
To the average onlooker, the controversy surrounding Sia’s new movie is an isolated incident of ableism. To autistic people like myself, it’s emblematic of a larger issue: mainstream media ignoring our voices.
Sia’s film, “Music,” features a nonverbal autistic lead character played by Maddie Ziegler, a neurotypical actress. On Nov. 20, a trailer received social media backlash for not casting an autistic actor. Sia responded on Twitter, but only stoked the flames as she argued with autistic viewers, actors, autism rights activists and organizations like the National Autism Society.
While it’s not inherently bad for neurotypicals to create media about the autism spectrum, neurotypicals will never completely understand the experience of being autistic, and even the most well-meaning individuals can perpetuate ableist messages and stereotypes. It’s possible to depict autism respectfully, but as with any disability, proper representation requires listening to disabled people and allowing us to share our perspectives.
Unfortunately, this is a rarity in the entertainment industry. According to the Ruderman Family Foundation, 21.6% of disabled characters in 2018 network television and streaming shows were authentically represented by actors with the same disability. Disabled representation in media is already limited, especially for autism. Having the majority of disabled characters represented by actors without those disabilities lessens the chance that a production truthfully or respectfully portrays them.
Sia was quick to explain that, despite lacking an autistic lead, “Music” includes 13 people on the spectrum, plus two autistic advisors. However, as the writer, director, producer and composer, Sia’s perspective is given the most attention. This wasn’t helped by stating that she had several autistic friends.
As any marginalized group knows, “I have a _____ friend” is a phrase often used to justify prejudice.
Ableist language and rhetoric was rampant throughout Sia’s tweets. From referring to autism as “special abilities” to boasting that autistic characters were cast “not as f****** prostitutes or drug addicts but as doctors, nurses and singers,” she managed to simultaneously be patronizing and demeaning. These fit two major stereotypes of autistic people: “heroes” whose everyday obstacles are inspiring, or “weirdos” viewed as strange, emotionless, intimidating or burdens on society.
As if that wasn’t enough, Sia revealed she initially worked with a nonverbal autistic actress who left after finding the project stressful. The reason she didn’t choose another autistic actress was that she felt “casting someone at her level of functioning was cruel, not kind.” Critics noted that not only were her comments about “level of functioning” insulting, Sia didn’t make an effort to search for neurodivergent actors.
“Several autistic actors, myself included, responded to these tweets. We all said we could have acted in it on short notice,” Twitter user Helen Z said in a reply to Sia. “These excuses are just that- excuses. The fact of the matter is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic.”
Sia responded with a resoundingly dismissive tweet, “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.”
Supposedly, Sia spent three years researching this topic, but her statements show a serious lack of understanding. Although there was no involvement until after filming wrapped, Sia mentioned the controversial organization Autism Speaks was on board. She claimed she “had no idea it was such a polarizing group,” which is the clearest sign she hasn’t really listened to autistic voices or done real research about the spectrum.
Giving Autism Speaks a background check doesn’t take three years. It’s hard to miss an organization whose titanic marketing push has made it almost synonymous with autism, or the many controversies that made it reviled by autistic people. Between ads portraying autism as a burden on parents, infantilizing autistic adults, treating autism as a disease to be “cured” and funding long-debunked anti-vaccination research, the truth about Autism Speaks is atrocious.
Like “Music,” Autism Speaks is managed by an overwhelmingly neurotypical board, which included one major autistic member who recently left. Considering Autism Speaks is a household name compared to more inclusive organizations like Autism Self Advocacy Network, its messaging reaches a wide audience and has become society’s dominant view of autism. Neurotypical voices who don’t include autistic voices are defining how we’re viewed, with dangerous consequences: stereotypes, pseudoscience and discrimination.
Despite all this, Sia will still be celebrated by audiences; her dividing tweets have thousands of likes, retweets and comments about “ignoring the haters.”
Autistic commenters with legitimate criticism are being talked over by Sia diehards (to use a colloquialism, “stans”) who will support the project no matter what. Their underlying message: “Don’t judge the movie if you haven’t seen it.”
Putting aside how trailers exist to be judged by audiences before seeing movies, “Music” has already shown all the warning signs. Sia is ignoring autistic voices and perpetuating harmful views, while furiously justifying herself with “good intentions,” all while neurotypicals are excluding autistic voices from creation and criticism. As long as society accepts prejudiced messages like these, autistic people will never truly be accepted. Call it what it is: discrimination.
To my autistic peers – who, like me, are discriminated against in life, school and media – we deserve better. We deserve to be included, respected, accommodated and have our voices heard. Diversity includes disability, and if anyone says otherwise, it’s time for them to face the music.