The Multiple Problems of Music by Sia

[Image Description: screenshot from the trailer of Music featuring a white woman with pigtails wearing light blue headphones sitting to the right of a black man wearing sunglasses.]

Yesterday, autistic activists took to twitter following the release of the trailer for the film Music by Sia. The trailer features a visibly disabled character complete with atypical motor movements, atypical facial expressions and large headphones. Initial criticism from the disability community came as a result of the casting of non-disabled actress Maddie Ziegler in the role of an autistic character rather than an autistic actress.

The practice of casting non-disabled actors to play disabled characters, known as “cripping up” is widespread and most mainstream productions continue to do this. Disability activists have launched campaigns against the practice but to limited success. This is one in a long line of recently accounted movies which fill feature a non-disabled actor playing a disabled character much to the disappointment of the disabled activist community.

It is important to note that despite the character of Music (yes, that’s her name) being autistic, the clips we see in the trailer of her atypical movement is closer to non-speaking cerebral palsy than non-speaking autism; evidence that the creators of this movie did not do their due diligence in actually researching disabilities and their presentations.

Cripping up is not the only thing this movie does wrong, however. Consider the advertising of the film: much of the synopses posted online refer to the character of Music as having “special needs”, including the Wikipedia page as of the time of writing this. Autistic self-advocates have long disliked the term “special needs”, as everyone has needs, and those of autistic people are only different and not ‘special’; making things accessible for autistic people does not take away from others.

Then there are Sia’s own words on the topic. In an interview available on YouTube, Sia describes the movie as “Rain Man: The Musical but with girls”. Immediately, this sets off alarm bells in the minds of autistic activists. Rain Man is a widely criticised movie by the autistic community for its stereotypical and damaging depiction of autism, and if that is the inspiration for the film, it casts a foreboding shadow on what Music’s depiction of autism is likely to look like.

Following the criticism of the trailer yesterday, Sia responded to critics by throwing fuel on the fire, making statements including:

“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.”

Except autistic people are disabled, and removing us from the disability community while also claiming that someone “at her level of functioning” is unable to become an actor, is hypocritical, offensive and exclusionary. Euphemisms for disabled such as “special abilities” are loathed by the vast majority of the disabled community, and if Sia thinks this is an adequate response to criticism, she clearly hasn’t engaged much with disabled people despite claims to the contrary.

 Non-speaking does not mean unable to communicate at all, or to cope with a working environment, and there are non-speaking autistic actors who would have been able to play this part. The lack of consideration given to the casting of an autistic actor has deprived someone of a paid role in a world where it is notoriously difficult for autistic people to make a living – particularly those like who Sia is trying to “represent”.

Sia also partnered with Autism Speaks, an anti-autistic hate group masquerading as an autism charity in the US in the making of this film. Autistic activists almost all despise Autism Speaks and even a cursory internet search these days will know how polarising the organisation is – ignorance is not an excuse when the information is there and available at the click of a few buttons.

In her responses on twitter to the controversy, Sia responded to an autistic actor who was not given the chance to audition saying “maybe you’re just a bad actor”. This response, alongside multiple tweets full of aggressive sounding language is how Sia has replied to the many autistic advocates who have criticised her film. It is hard to assume good faith when someone responds so aggressively.

There was a good opportunity here to create a movie that would represent autistic people and help change stereotypes, but what we have already seen in the trailer, the casting, and in Sia’s response to criticism makes it unlikely that the end product will do so. I hope to be proven wrong, and as such will watch the movie upon its release, but I am sceptical and disappointed in Sia’s response to the valid concerns of autistic people.

EDIT: Since the initial publication of this post, new evidence has come to light that Sia did not, at any point, attempt to cast an autistic actor despite what she claimed; and that the movie was designed for Maddie Ziegler to play the lead.

Also, the same evidence suggests Maddie raised concerns that this would be viewed as offensive by the autistic community but was reassured by Sia to the contrary. Given Maddie’s age when production began on this movie; it is clear that Sia has been misleading and gaslighting Maddie also.

Edit 2: language has been changed from non-verbal to non-speaking to reflect the wishes of the non-speaking autistic community.

Review: Love on the Spectrum

Spoiler Alert: This review contains spoilers for the show Love on the Spectrum.

Love on the Spectrum is a reality dating show filmed in Australia featuring a number of autistic people who are looking for romantic partners. The first season, originally released in Australia in 2019, and elsewhere in 2020, is comprised of five episodes which follow a number of autistic participants as they go on first dates and try to find a match. The show also features several established autistic couples. The show has received a mixed reception from autistic reviewers.

The premise of the show – that autistic people can and want to seek love and companionship just as non-autistic people do – is already an improvement on much of the mainstream non-fiction television about us which tends to forget we are full human beings. Autistic people are often depicted by the media as being unfeeling and devoid of the ability to love. This is a highly offensive take. This show is excellent in its refutation of that stereotype, and for allowing autistic people to talk openly and be proud of their autism and of who they are.

Parts of the show that made me really happy were: seeing Olivia’s theatre company for people with disabilities. As someone who loved drama growing up, I wish I had somewhere like that and I was so happy she has that. Also, Jessica bringing a Nintendo Switch to her date with Kevin. I actually think that’s a very innovative way for autistic people to get to know each other on a date, much better than awkward dinners in a restaurant.

The representation of other disabilities on the show is one of the highlights. Love on the Spectrum features a Deaf autistic woman and an autistic person using crutches, among other disabilities. Though while it is good disability representation, the same cannot be said for queer representation or the representation of people of colour. Of the main participants only one is non-white, and only one date is between two women.

The vast majority of the autistic participants on this show were lovely people who I hope are doing well in their lives now, but there was one notable exception – Michael. The first two episodes partly feature a 25-year-old autistic man called Michael, who makes some rather sexist comments. Autism is not an excuse for misogyny, not now, not ever. I have had experiences in the past with autistic men feeling entitled to my body as an autistic woman, and that the show featured these attitudes in the first episodes hurt me.

When asked his greatest dream in life, Michael responds: “to become a husband.” On the surface, there is nothing actually wrong with this statement, but to me, it made me raise my eyebrows a little – a hint of fear that this was someone who could become obsessive about their partner, to a disturbing degree. Alone, this is not cause for concern. My concerns started when, while speaking with his family over food, he claims girls around his sisters age only want boyfriends for “intercourse”, being a “bodyguard” or as a “sugar daddy”.

Here is a prime example of someone with unhealthy opinions about woman, that they somehow ‘use’ men for their money. His family not only does nothing to counter these attitudes, they seem happy to encourage it. After segments featuring other participants, Michael returns to discuss what his attitude towards a future wife would be. “She would be pretty much my most valuable and greatest treasure of all time.” Sounds sweet… if it wasn’t phrased in a way that made this hypothetical woman sound like a piece of property.

When describing what he wants in a woman to his mother and someone behind the camera, he says that he doesn’t want anybody “gothic… or tomboyish… or practically any girl that acts like she’s still in high school”. He seems incredibly picky, which is everyone’s right on partners, but he also seems to want someone who will act traditionally girly and will not talk back.

To top it off, he gives his reasons for not wanting children: “I have a feeling that having children will ruin my chances of becoming wealthy.” This is not related to the sexism complaints, but he is clearly extremely capitalist which is another red flag by my estimation. He then talks about “allowing” his future wife to have children despite the harm it will do to his wealth. How generous (sarcasm, because we autistics can use that).

The professional relationship specialist, Jodi Rogers, is also another low point for this show. Despite all the participants being autistic, and going on dates with other autistic people, she teaches people to mask: to hide their autism and put on a fake act of being neurotypical on dates. A neurotypical professional teaching autistic people to hide their true selves is always wrong in my mind, but to do this when trying to get them to meet other autistic people is counterproductive as well. Acting fake on a first date is the wrong way to start.

One other concerning point of Love on the Spectrum is the amount of time given to the parents of some participants. This is a dating show, and on a dating show about neurotypical people, this much airtime would not be given to parents, who really have no right being involved in their adult children’s dating lives. The focus on parents is infantilising of autistic people.

A good thing this show is doing is that the producers have seemed willing to take the feedback of autistic viewers on board for the second season. This is what producers of other autism-related shows should be doing, and gives me great hope for the future. Love on the Spectrum has excellent potential, and with just a few tweaks could really help change public attitudes towards autistic people. I look forward to the next season.

Bias, Propaganda & Media

[Image description: a pile of newspapers]

I avoid tabloids, I find them boring and most often inaccurate about political issues. When I choose to read the news, which I often do in spite of how much it upsets me, I choose to read news that focuses on more serious matters. To be clear, if you read tabloids, I have no issue with that, everyone is different and I have just personally chosen not to.

I prefer my sources to be as unbiased as possible, something that almost never happens due to human nature. That goes for bias in favour of my side just as much as against it. The echo chamber is less stressful, but I prefer a more rounded view.

Right now, I imagine if you are one of the people who followed me on twitter during the 2014 independence referendum, you might be putting on your angry comment hat, ready to inform me of BBC bias and why The National is the only good news source out there. Save your breath, because eighteen-year-old me might have joined you. I know all your arguments off by heart.

I don’t believe there is such a thing as a properly neutral news source. News is written by humans, and all humans have bias, no matter how unconscious, and no matter how much they try and fight it. That’s the nature of humanity, and fair enough. So, I believe it is important to seek out news from various sources to counter this, both ones you agree with and ones you do not.

I mean within reason, of course. I don’t advocate going online to seek out far-right propaganda sites or other extremist material. I mean the moderate ‘other side’, not the extremes. I don’t limit my reading exclusively to articles written by verified pro-independence, pro-EU individuals.

Most of the material out there is propaganda, for one side or the other. Such is the way of life, the internet and democracy. Which is why I don’t like to limit my reading to only that which confirms my own beliefs. If ‘my side’ does something wrong, I want to be aware. I don’t want to be the kind of person who believes those I agree with are infallible.

This is especially the case following recent events. Everyone in Scotland has seen the mountain of conspiracy theories put out there by everyone. I will not comment on the situation that started this. It is not my place; this endless discussion is harming abuse survivors and I do not feel comfortable participating in it myself.

Especially about issues such as this, however, I urge people, do not just accept what your friends say. Think critically about everything, it is the only way democracy can remain healthy.