Discussing Autism in the Media: Sia’s Music

Written by: Joshua Camputaro

Until recently, I had not heard about Sia’s new movie Music. Set to release in the states this upcoming weekend, the movie follows a story of a young, non-vocal, girl with autism named Music, who after the sudden death of her mother is put in the guardianship of her older sister. However, it was not long after I was first learning about this film that a new, disturbing revelation of its treatment of autism surfaced. The revelation not only caused controversy and ire, but also brought back discussions of the film’s history of interactions with autism and the autistic community that have otherwise been lost and ignored.

Source: Ivan Bertolazzi

With the film’s first promotion in November of last year, most of its controversy centered on casting the character of Music with a neurotypical (non-autistic) actor. This practice is a common occurrence in the industry, and for us in the autistic community, it can create a feeling of mockery based in a neurotypical perspective. The community’s anger stems from Sia not trying to reach out to or accommodate more autistic actors for the role, as well as for her placing Maddie Zeigler in the film, despite that actor’s discomfort playing Music.

Compounding the controversy, Sia has also had negative interactions with the autistic community in defending her decisions and in the way she talks about autism. At one time, she even excuses her ableism for nepotism, reinforcing the malignancy and absurdity of the casting. However, most of the criticism that was aimed against her comes from her working with and getting information from Autism Speaks, an organization infamous in the autistic community because it fearmongers about autism and has a history of promoting its eradication. Nevertheless, much of this discussion fell away from the public eye over time.

Source: Pexels

Then, it happened. A leaked clip from Music’s Australian release reveals there is a scene where the caretakers of Music use a known traumatic and deadly prone physical restraint to calm her during a meltdown. This scene sparked outrage in the autistic community, and Sia has addressed this issue by adding a disclaimer to the film and by planning to cut the restraint scenes in future releases. To many of us, however, this is another nail in the coffin for the movie. Sadly, it also reinforces our concerns for representation of people on the spectrum in the media as a whole.

Without autism, we would not be who we are, and it is a core part of many autists’ identity. Although our different wiring affects how we interact with the world and can be limiting, we are as complex as any other neurotypical person, making representation difficult unless it is based on the biography of an actual person. Sia did say that Music is inspired by an individual in her life who is on the spectrum, but this does not erase her hurtful words and decisions which are at the core of this issue.

Source: Pexels

Reflecting on my experience, one of my traits includes being a bottom-up, associative thinker who gets invested in details and the connections between them. This is not how all people on the spectrum think, but it makes certain tasks, such as interacting with a film like Music, difficult. As the situation also ties into my empathy, I do not know where I should stand my ground. In fact, while there are many reasons to criticize Sia, it’s also possible to see some positives in her film.

With that in mind, despite the controversies, I’d like to recognize Sia’s intent in making Music with care and respect, even if it did not turn out to be perfect. Perhaps this movie, if anything, has helped to publicize the concerns the community has for our representation in the media that has otherwise garnered little attention. There is a lot that can be learned, changed, and gained, so long as it is approached with an open mind and compassion. 

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