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Not ‘Music’ to Our Ears

ATLAS talks about Sia’s debut film, Music, and the portrayal of Autism in the media.

Contents

Young people’s views on Sia’s casting of Music

You may have heard of Sia’s new movie, Music, which was criticised before release for casting a non-autistic actor as a mostly non-verbal, autistic main character.

In the midst of Sia lashing out at criticism on social media, ATLAS members talked about how the casting of Music and the release trailer made them feel.

A screenshot of a tweet exchange between Helen Z and Sia. Helen Z's tweet reads: 'Several autistic actors, myself included, responded to these tweets. We all said we could have acted in it on short notice. These excuses are just that - excuses. The fact of the matter is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic. #NothingAoutUsWithoutUs.' Sia's response reads: 'Maybe you're just a bad actor.'
Famous tweet exchange during backlash around the casting of Sia’s movie, Music.

Many of the young people were disappointed that a potential opportunity for representation of girls with autism was overwritten by ableism:

“It feels as if someone who has not experienced being autistic is mimicking and taking the mick out of struggles we have and there are so many potential actors and actresses which would have been happy to be casted in the movie. There is the idea that Sia was not able to put the right environment for an autistic actress to function when filming but if it’s not working for them and the movie is about autism and disability inclusion and awareness then you should change the environment. I feel it is especially difficult to watch the trailer as a girl with autism seeing a neuro typical girl attempt to portray autism in girls, which unfortunately is a very underrepresented thing in the media and is often not acknowledged as much as autism in boys. I feel that the opportunity to bring about awareness for autism in girls has been crushed by such a horrifically degrading movie of a neuro typical attempting to show you what it’s like to live as an autistic person when they have had no actual experience of it.”

Other young people were torn, because they felt that additional needs and disabilities have been successfully portrayed by actors without additional needs and disabilities elsewhere:

“I think it is difficult. Ideally an autistic character should be played by an autistic actor as this will really help raise awareness, and potentially open up these opportunities to people with additional needs. However, I also think it is not a negative thing a non-autistic actor playing this role, as long as the portrayal is accurate and realistic.

A good example is the American TV show ‘The Good Doctor’. A non autistic actor (Freddie Highmore) plays an autistic savant character in the show, and I know his portrayal of the character has received a lot of praise and has also helped to raise awareness, as well as showing a powerful autistic role model through television, despite the fact that the actor does not have autism.”

A still from the TV show 'The Good Doctor' showing the main character Dr. Shaun Murphy played by Freddie Highmore.
Dr. Shaun Murphy from ‘The Good Doctor’

Overall, ATLAS members did not feel that the casting of ‘Music’ was positive.

“Autistic actors are already marginalised and it’s harder for them to get roles. Especially when that autistic character has already been written by non-autistic people, I think it’s disrespectful to not use an autistic actor. It’s unhelpful, and often inaccurate.”

“It’s something that affects me daily and they get to take off their ‘autism mask’ and carry on normally, plus they profit from all of this. It also would be far more accurate with an autistic actor who actually knows the ins and outs of being autistic.”

The portrayal of autism in the media

Sadly, this film does not stand in isolation. The majority of ATLAS members reported that they felt the portrayal of autism in the media was either ‘not very good’ or ‘really terrible’.

There were mixed views around having non-speaking autistic characters in films, however there was a largely positive response to having female characters with autism.

Survey responses about the portrayal of autism in the media.
Survey results from Microsoft Forms on the portrayal of Autism in the media.

“I think it’s so important to have the diversity of autism shown in the media. Too many people think it’s straight white boys lining up cars but it’s so much more than that.”

“The way autism is currently represented in the media is not very diverse. Usually cishet white men who like maths. Or it’s demonised. It’s very often talked about from the perspective of ‘autism parents’ rather than autistic people.”

Film is a powerful medium. When used correctly, it can empower and educate people. When somebody sees a film focused on autism, that may be their first exposure to the idea of autism or to an autistic person. This provides an opportunity for people to talk about and approach autism in better ways. Unfortunately, if the film misrepresents people with autism, then the ideas taken from a film could lead to autistic people being viewed and treated in negative ways.

“It could be great it has amazing potential to raise awareness to the struggles of autistic people by using our own experiences and using us for the information rather than charities and companies like Autism Speaks which believe that autism needs a cure. So if the information that the film and the character was based off of was found through talking to autistic people and if they cast an autistic person then the film would have amazing potential to widen people’s knowledge of the autism spectrum and and make the representation of autism in the media more positive.”

Disability is fluid

Clem Bastow beautifully describes Maddie Ziegler’s performance in her Guardian Article:

“there are elements of truth to Ziegler’s performance, but even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day”

Clem Bastow, in her Guardian Article: Sia’s film Music misrepresents autistic people. It could also do us damage

Disability is fluid:

  • two people with the same condition can have completely different experiences of it
  • the level of disability someone might experience can vary from day to day.

When people don’t understand the nature of fluidity in disability, it leads to stereotyping and contributes to how disabling society is. People with additional needs and disabilities are actively excluded based on assumptions and passively through it being ignored.

The most important thing to do is listen.

You don’t need to understand how an additional need or disability affects someone to accept it. To believe the individual. To accommodate.

“They’ll decide what your ability is, and then you will be prescribed to that and then you’re not encouraged to go beyond that.”

I’m going to crush you with my love

Perhaps one of the most dangerous misunderstandings the film portrays is the use of prone restraint. Restraint should only be used if there is an immediate danger to that individual or others. When that danger has passed, restraint should stop.

In 2020, the misuse of restraint by law enforcement was brought under further scrutiny after the death of George Floyd. However, restraint is also used in health, care and school environments. At least 20 children have died in the U.S. as a result of restraint since 2001.

ATLAS recently talked about the use of restraint in schools for managing the behaviour of young people with additional needs and disabilities:

“Children and young people shouldn’t be in a position where they are treated like criminals.”

“I believe that restraint should not be used, ever, unless a person is presenting an imminent risk to themselves or someone else. As in, they are not able to stop themselves. Honestly, not even then, usually you can use de-escalation techniques.”

Participation, participation, participation

The film Music being released at the same time as ATLAS is starting to look towards Autism Awareness Week (29th March to 4th April 2021) highlights to me the sheer importance of participation and listening to the voices of people who are experts in their own experience!

How different these events could have been if the voices shared around the release trailer of Music had been properly listened to and acted upon. How different the representation of minorities, vulnerable groups, discriminated groups, those the industry continuously promote stereotypes about could be.

Film can reflect society, but it can also heavily influence it and bring about positive change.

ATLAS members have some advice for anyone reading this who wishes to portray characters with additional needs and disabilities:

“Let people be themselves.”

“Building the character and the movie off of ideas and experiences from people with that additional need and/or disability. Actually taking their experiences and using them in it and it’s easily possible to cast someone as an actor or actress with those additional needs playing the character with those additional needs.”

“They’d have to consult multiple different people with the same disability and not romanticise it or demonise it.”

“I would want them to actually consult with people who have those additional needs and involve them in every step of the process – writing, casting, acting, publishing.”

“Show people how I suffer.”

Written by Sabrina Peters, Additional Needs and Disabilities Participation Officer and edited by Rowan Foster, ATLAS member and Bank worker for the User Voice and Participation Team.

3 replies on “Not ‘Music’ to Our Ears”

Very interesting read! Autism is not something neurotypicals often think about, and most of our information comes from media portrayals, which as these young people point can be very misleading. It would be great to see what people with Autism want us to see/know come directly from them and not a neurotypical’s idea of it.

Liked by 1 person

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