There is something uniquely hurtful about being mocked. In Sia’s attempt to empower neurodiverse people, she’s hurt and offended many. Was she wrong to try the way she did, or is the world just trolling her?
For those that don’t know about the controversy swirling around one of the most famous pop stars of the day, Sia, I’ll give you the spark notes. Sia recently released a trailer for her upcoming movie, "Music," which features Maddie Zeigler portraying a nonverbal woman on the autism spectrum, named Music. Ms. Zeigler is not, in fact, on the autism spectrum, nor is she considered by the public to be neurodiverse. This has been the root of the controversy. While some might argue that Ms. Zeigler is merely “acting” as a nonverbal autistic woman, others might consider it “pretending” or even “mocking” those with the most extreme cases of autism.
Why Does Autism Community Care?
There are many dimensions to measure the spectrum of autism. Most notably, individuals on the autism spectrum demonstrate social interactions, communication abilities, and behaviors that differ from neurotypical individuals of the same age. Adults on the autism spectrum may experience barriers in multiple areas, such as accessing quality healthcare and finding sustained employment and are significantly more likely than the general population to have many physical and mental health conditions.
While the trailer is very brief and does not provide much insight as to the dynamic between Music and her friends, people have already been speculating that the film will portray the autism community in a negative light. Perhaps the most hurtful aspect of what people do know is that Sia did not employ someone on the autism spectrum to play the lead character in her movie.
Screenshot from Music's trailer
Where Is the Line Drawn?
From Sia’s perspective, I can understand the frustration that people who have never seen the movie are already dismissing it as “hurtful” and “tone-deaf.” Regardless of the project, budget, or timeline for a project, there are always limitations. Sia has argued that her movie had only the best intentions (and that may well be true) but that she needed to work with someone with advanced skills in communication and acting to achieve her vision for the film. She asserts that if she chose to cast someone with the degree of communication challenges as Music had, the movie would not have been possible to make. While some may find that this is a perfectly legitimate argument to make, her extreme and patronizing reactions to the public’s negative response have only made matters worse for her.
Maybe you’re just a bad actor.— sia (@Sia) November 20, 2020
From the perspective of the autism community and neurodiverse community more broadly, why not hire a neurodiverse actress? Why not an actress on the autism spectrum? There are many actors and actresses on the autism spectrum that Sia could have considered. I can see from their perspective that it’s insulting to hire someone so distinctly different from the character they’re intended to portray, that an actor or actress who does not have the lived experience of someone on the autism spectrum is not capable of portraying that experience accurately, respectfully, and tactfully.
Again, I worked very closely with two neuroatypical friends, I learned so much and wanted to share it with the world.— sia (@Sia) November 20, 2020
The idea that Sia has tried to make a movie to convey the idea that the world can be a safe, accepting, and loving space for people on the autism spectrum is a noble one. Unfortunately, she has failed to authentically and earnestly engage with the community that she aims to help with her movie at all phases of this project — research and development of the movie — and now in promoting the movie.