Sia’s Awful Attempts at Autistic Activism, Allyship, and Accountability.
We are not objects for your saviour narratives, pity points, or inspiration porn.
Here is a summary of the controversy:
- A successful singer with a massive following decides to make a film centred on a marginalised demographic* which she herself is not part of.
- She spends years researching this demographic, using what people of this demographic consider hate groups as her sources.
- For the titular character, she casts an actor who is of this demographic. However, this actor struggles to cope with feeling overwhelmed and disrespected on set. Instead of working with this actor to make her feel safe and respected on set, the singer fires her and replaces her with an actor who is not of the marginalised demographic.
- This new actor researches what she will be portraying by watching videos of real people of this demographic suffering, filmed without their consent. As a result, her performance amounts to a shallow representation of what people of this demographic are like, based on exaggerated stereotypes.
- To top it off, the titular character is by no means the protagonist, but rather exists for her sister’s character development and saviour narrative.
- Many people of this demographic criticise the singer for her insensitive portrayal. Instead of listing to the feedback of those who live with what she tried (and failed) to portray, she uses her Twitter platform to dismiss and belittle them. Despite her “research” and criticism since the film was announced, she continues to use harmful phrases and misconceptions.
*This demographic could have been people of colour or the LGBT+ community and there would have been outrage at the way the film handled it. But all is well, considering the marginalised demographic Sia chose to exploit was autistic people.
“It’s called acting!” many have argued to dismiss the big deal the autistic community have made over Sia’s upcoming film, Music. The issue goes deeper than Sia’s decision to cast a neurotypical actress, Maddie Zieglar, as the titular, autistic character. Here is an analysis of Sia’s actions throughout the film production, research preparation, and backlash that demonstrate how this film is nothing more than a self-indulgent insult to real autistic people.
Autism $peaks & Public Meltdowns
Sia claims to have put three years of research on autism into this film. This is difficult to believe due to the numerous blunders she has made in depicting and discussing autism. However, this is easier to understand when you consider how autistic activism is divided in two. Neurotypical opinions on autism (by most autism charities and allistic parents “autism moms” of autistic children) clash with the voices of those who are autistic themselves. The former pathologises autism as a disease or deficit that needs to be fixed. In recent years, the latter has spoke out against the many misconceptions of autism, arguing that autism is an organic neurodiversity that cannot and should not be cured but rather embraced. This results in a lot of friction in autistic spaces and general confusion around the definition of autism.
Considering Sia’s partnership with Autism Speaks, it’s easy to determine which side her research focused on. Autism Speaks is probably the most well-known charity for autism, but also the most notorious for making life harder for autistic people. In was founded quite recently in 2005 yet spreads misinformation from long outdated and debunked research. This misinformation involves enforcing rigid stereotypes to comparing autism to diseases like AIDS and cancer. The most notable example of this is their “I Am Autism” commercial which presents autism as a evil entity that steals your child and ruins your marriage. Little to none of its funding goes into improving the lives of autistic people. Instead, they focus on cures and causes of autism, helping the families/carers of autistic children (which includes enabling abusers), and advertising.
For these reasons, the majority of autistic adults insist that Autism Speaks does not speak for them, likening it more to a hate group than a charity. As an analogy, you wouldn’t try to understand gay people through the research of gay conversion therapy institutes, unless your film project was homophobic.
I struggle to believe that Sia spent three years researching autism and failed to realise she was cosying up to an enemy of autistic people. The only explanations are wilful ignorance or falling blindly for their propaganda.
That’s not to say that Sia should have omitted all sources by neurotypicals from her research. Diagnostic criterion, psychology textbooks, and accounts of autism from an outside perspective can be a good way to contextualise autism and the way the world views us.
Whether you research a subject for three minutes, three years, or thirty years, it amounts to nothing if your sources are limited/biased and you do not think critically.
When we consider Maddie’s prep for the role of Music, the exploitation of real autistic people just gets worse.
The real “epidemic” of autism is how many neurotypical parents think a reasonable response to their autistic child having a meltdown is to pick up their phone, start recording, and post it on social media. If you do this, even if the video gets you all the pity you were craving, even if you spin the narrative of what a burden your autistic child is, your situation pales in comparison to experiencing a meltdown first-hand. A meltdown differs from a tantrum in the sense it can’t be controlled. If filming a relative having a seizure, asthma attack, or panic attack would be cruel, why do so many parents film the medical event of their child’s autistic meltdown and post it online?
It turns out, this exploitation of autistic children was fundamental step in creating this film. What better for a neurotypical actor to mimic autistic traits than by watching non consensual recordings of autistic people at their most vulnerable?
Over the past few years, many actually autistic adults have voiced their experiences and opinions online. To understand autism from the horse’s mouth, it’s not difficult to find resources unless your research is biased. If our side of the story was given the slightest bit of consideration by Sia and her team, they would have realised the problem with how the film ultimately turned out.
This film dehumanises real autistic people every step of the way.
The Original Autistic Actor
Sia claims that out of the millions of young actresses who are actually autistic, none of them were up to the task.
Sia: “I actually tried working with a beautiful young girl non verbal on the spectrum and she found it unpleasant and stressful. So that’s why I cast Maddie.
Sia: “My character was pretty low functioning and after attempting a few actors on the spectrum they suggested I use Maddie.”
First, the “low functioning” excuse is bullshit and a prime example of how functioning labels can be used to demean autistic people.
Second of all, autistic people have an advantage that can make them amazing actors: Most of us act full time. It’s called masking. When you grow up being constantly told that your quirks, natural mannerisms, body language, interests, and needs are “wrong”, consciously or subconsciously, you learn to mimic social cues to keep the neurotypicals happy. Sometimes it is a matter of survival. It is very common in autistic females who tend not to get diagnosed until adulthood because they mask so well.
Being a chameleon is exhausting. It may seem uncharacteristic for introverted autistic people to be into performing arts, but it makes sense. I love acting because it is second nature. I’m expected to act everyday, but this is only recognised as a talent when I’m on stage and/or playing a character. If you’re good at something, never do it for free, and all that jazz.
So, what went wrong? If the logic behind casting Maddie really was that too many autistic actors found working on the film unpleasant, who can blame them? Considering a major selling point is the abstract, bright, gaudy visuals.
I am assuming from the trailer that these sequences are a metaphorical depiction of Music’s unique view on the world. Perhaps it shows her special interest (music) through hyperbolic synaethesia. More likely, I am wasting my time trying to apply autistic logic to any aspect of this film.
Regardless, for most autistic people, these visuals are overstimulating sensory hell. This is ironic since it is the very motif that is meant to symbolise the autistic experience.
The sensory side of autism is categorised by either over or under sensitivity to sensory input. Everyone is different and it is possible to be under-sensitive for some senses and over-sensitive to others. For example, out of the five senses, I am over-sensitive to visuals, sounds, textures, and smells, but under-sensitive to taste. Those who are over-sensitive are referred to as “avoiders” as exposure to such sensory input can be so overwhelming, it becomes painful. Those who are under-sensitive are referred to as “seekers” as they need more sensory input.
If Sia had spent any of her three years of research understanding different sensory profiles, she would have considered hiring a visual seeker for the role. If the issue persisted, she should have reconsidered the environment of the set.
The overwhelming visuals combined with Sia’s ignorant attitude to real life autism is enough to make any autistic actor throw in the towel. Does that mean autistic people are bad actors? I’m sure Anthony Hopkins would beg to differ.
Sia’s initial attempt at casting an autistic actress exposes an even more sinister side to her intentions than if she’d casted a neurotypical from the start. If you’re producing a film centred around a specific disability/identity/trait and the actor you’ve chosen (of that identity) to portray it cannot stomach being on set, you’ve gone seriously wrong somewhere.
Yet Sia has the audacity to blame the actor’s discomfort on their autism then sack them from a film about autism. Her refusal to acknowledge that she was the problem is ironic and baffling.
Sugar-coated Dismissal and Infantilisation
Sia: “I agree. I’ve never referred to music as disabled. Special abilities is what I’ve always said, and casting someone at her level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community.”
It is clear that Sia has a very misconstrued understanding of autism. The reality of autism was nothing but an inconvenience to the film about her version of “autism”.
She treats the word “disabled” like a slur — another hint to her deep rooted ableism. Replacing disabled with “special abilities” is not empowering, it is patronising. Autism is a disability, and that’s only insulting is you are prejudiced against the disabled. Claiming that there was no need to cast a disabled character because Music is not disabled contradicts her narrative as an autistic girl.
Insisting your autistic fictional character is not disabled and in the next breath using functioning labels to dismiss casting an autistic actor is prime cherry picking. You cannot reinvent autism and its lexicon as your get out of jail free card.
Sia’s unrepentant wilful ignorance continues in her online interactions with the autistic community. Through painting autistic people as magical prodigies, too pure to understand communication, she can conveniently gaslight her autistic critics.
This leads me to ask: Who is this film for?
It would be an understatement to say that this film was not made with an autistic audience mind.
Judging by the trailer, the character of Music serves as a plot device (with her “special abilities”) for her sister’s redemption/saviour narrative and the sensory burnout inducing visuals.
This cliché false representation of autism is still, however, presented autism. Therefore, in a time where the voices of autistic people are finding platforms to dismantle the misconceptions, films like this undo the progress. As autistics, our perspectives on ourselves are easily dismissed and drowned out by neurotypicals.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with writing autistic characters if you aren’t autistic yourself. But if you’re unwilling to do your research and listen to the people you are trying to portray, stay in your lane.
The actions of someone with a fan base as big as Sia’s have immense influence, for better or for worse. This film is textbook irresponsibility.
Nothing about us without us.