February 10th, 2021 saw the release of the movie Music, directed and scored by musical artist Sia. Thought to tell the story of finding your voice and creating family, the movie is centered around Music (played by Maddie Ziegler) who is on the autistic spectrum. However, the movie, and director, are in the middle of a controversy surrounding Sia and Ziegler’s representation of autism and how to respond to it.
The autistic community has come out full force and, due in part to the wide-reaching social media apps like Tik-Tok and Instagram, have been outspoken in how harmful Music is to long-lasting autistic representation and understanding.
“Not only did Music do a horrendous job on portraying autistic voices, but it also includes some black face that makes me extremely uncomfortable,” said one student, who wishes to remain anonymous, “Not only that, but the film is extremely ableist, the fact that Sia worked with Autism Speaks on it, the strobe [and] flashing lights which makes it even hard for neurodivergent people to watch, and the extreme caricature Maddie Ziegler uses to what feels like almost make fun of someone who is non-verbal and autistic. It’s cruel.”
The movie’s main affront is a specific scene where Music is restrained while she is having a meltdown. Meltdowns are a common occurrence in autistic people, essentially an intense emotional outburst brought out from being overstimulated.
“Using restraints [has really set back autistic representation.] It’s very harmful for us because it’s being promoted as a good thing, but it’s not, people have actually died from that kind of restraint—basically being on top of the person and holding them down! We have overstimulation to certain noises, or textures, and it makes us very, very uncomfortable,” explained another Alfred University student, who wishes to be unnamed “We are very diverse, so when freaking out, if we aren’t putting anyone in harm? Calm us down first, or at least try, but jumping on us and trying to restrain us with so much force? Not everyone should be treated like that.”
In film, there have been several positive representations of autistic people, such as Adam Raki in Adam and Simon in Simple Simon. In television, as well, with Spencer Reid in “Criminal Minds” and Maurice Moss in “IT Crowd.” Namely, the television show “Atypical,” garners a lot of support amongst individuals in the autistic community, is seen as a great representation of autism.
“I immediately recommend that over Music any time. The show centers around a boy with autism whose special interests include penguins and drawing. The show talks about his family and how they deal with everyday things, as well. There is also LGBTQ+ representation on that show that makes me incredibly happy,” the anonymous student relayed, enthusiastically.
However, the running theme with each of those depictions is that each character is not played by someone on the autistic spectrum (at least as of the publishing of this article.)
While the list is small, it is worth mentioning the popularity of some autistic actors who play autistic characters. Mickey Rowe is credited as the first known autistic actor to play any autistic character in a professional performance setting, making his debut in the play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Kayla Cromer plays Matilda on the television show “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay,” which also portrays LGBTQ+ relationships on the autistic spectrum.
Though there is a lack of autistic characters portrayed by autistic actors, that does not mean that there is a lack of autistic individuals in Hollywood.
“A favorite director of mine also happens to be Tim Burton, which many people didn’t know but, he, in fact, has autism!” One of the anonymous students said.
“I don’t know if he ever played the role of an autistic person, but [I really like] Anthony Hopkins, especially him playing Hannibal in Silence of the Lambs,” the other anonymous student added.
The autistic community is often the punchline in media, and while there have been strides in recognizing neurodivergence as something positive and respectable, there will always be a representation like Music to set back the progress. What is important, and what the autistic community wants to note, is that they will remain and fight back against harmful misrepresentation.
By Sam Sage