The concept of music is one that fills so many people with joy. The idea of sharing music with one another has been a crucial part of our culture for centuries (and became popular through digital means when P2P file-sharing caught on in 1999 through the Napster platform). But now that singer-songwriter Sia has released a controversial and widely condemned film of the same name, some parents might not be so keen on the associations of the word.
For months, autism advocates had warned the public about many of Sia’s decisions in regard to the film, which follows the journey of the title character as she experiences her grandmother’s death and learns to live with her half-sister. The problem? The role of Music is described as a non-verbal young woman with autism — and she’s played by neurotypical actress and dancer, Maddie Ziegler.
Advocates were already outraged by Sia’s decision to cast the part with a neurotypical (and famous) performer rather than an actor with autism. With very few neurodivergent performers being represented in Hollywood, the film would have presented a great opportunity to provide representation and ensure the movie was created with factual, supportive information in mind. Unfortunately, according to many parents and concerned parties, things went from bad to worse when they actually saw the film. Not only did some feel that Ziegler was doing a parody of an autistic person, but many also even suggested that she was styled in a way that was seen as culturally appropriative and inappropriate.
By far, one of the biggest problems of the film comes in a scene wherein Music is restrained as a way to calm her down — a practice that the autism community has condemned outright.
As Zoe Gross, director of advocacy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, explained in a statement: “The autistic community has been fighting for decades to end the use of restraints that traumatize and kill. Had the filmmakers chosen to meaningfully involve autistic people from the beginning, we could have told them how catastrophically irresponsible it is to encourage viewers to use the kind of deadly restraints that killed Max Benson, Eric Parsa, and many other members of our community.”
Although Sia has since apologized and noted that the scene would be removed in any subsequent releases, the singer’s response to community outcry throughout this process came off as defensive and ignorant. Although the singer asked for input from disability-led nonprofits, she reportedly ignored their guidance — and she even partnered with Autism Speaks, a group that many say has done significant harm to the autistic community.
While it’s clear that Music has been anything but a success in the eyes of the public (despite its two Golden Globes nominations), that doesn’t mean that the need for autism-centered films ceases to exist. Approximately 93% of children have seen a doctor in the last year — and according to a recent CDC report, more of those children are being diagnosed with autism. The study found that autism rates increased by 10% since 2018 and have tripled since the year 2000. Although these increases could be attributed to improved detection methods and more widespread awareness, it’s obvious that many American families are impacted by autism.
And as such, it’s important that people on the autism spectrum — and children, in particular — see themselves represented in the media. A four-year-old child might ask 437 questions per day, but many neurodivergent children might not express themselves verbally or may face other challenges. Being able to see themselves on screen can have immense effects for them in the future. And for neurotypical children, being exposed to compassionate and realistic portrayals of autism, disabilities, and other examples of diversity can allow us to create a future with a lot more empathy and a lot less harm.
If you’re looking for a few film examples that showcase autism in a more positive and empathetic light, check out the titles on this list:
- Life, Animated: After Owen’s parents learn of their son’s autism diagnosis, they discover the power of animated movies through this documentary.
- Kids With Cameras: This documentary features seven children on the autism spectrum who learn how to film and edit their own movies, showcasing the incredible abilities of children with ASD.
- Autism, The Musical: Created to help children with autism learn how to express themselves, this documentary affiliated with The Miracle Project showcases kids with ASD who write and perform their own musical theatre pieces.
- Inside Out: While not specifically about autism, this Disney Pixar film does such a commendable job of displaying and discussing emotions that it’s even used by therapists and other mental health professionals in sessions.
Sia’s film, by almost all accounts, got almost everything wrong in regard to autism. But if anything positive has come out of the controversy, it’s that these deliberate missteps aren’t being ignored by the media or by those outside of the autistic community. And although it’s undoubtedly frustrating that such a film could be made in 2021, many families are hopeful that greater representation and improved awareness will follow.