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Sia's Response to 'Music' Backlash Shows How Autism Myths Cause Harm

Celebrated singer Sia recently premiered her trailer for her movie “Music” — and there is a lot to unpack.

The main problem, at first, was the casting of Maddie Ziegler (“Dance Moms”) as the lead character with autism, whose name is, wait for it, Music. Moreover, as you can expect from her name, the story depicts Music as the “eternally innocent” stereotype in the most polarizing way I’ve ever seen. Ziegler portrays Music as always happy and giggly, and she sees the world in her own little way (through music and singers). In her technicolor fantasies, she loves to twirl around in pretty pink dresses. Although Ziegler is 18, the character is described as a “happy little girl.” This movie clearly builds on society’s false assumptions that people with disabilities are cute babies who need to be protected. The casting, Ziegler’s performance, and the representation are all deeply problematic.

This controversy could be a lesson for Sia on the importance of casting, story, and even who should be a consultant for your movie. (The highly controversial Autism Speaks teamed with Sia for “Music.”) But instead, Sia has been shockingly offensive and dismissive to actors with disabilities in her responses. In one tweet, she writes, “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.” The most damning comment to an actor with autism was, “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.”

Sia’s intense defensiveness shows how Hollywood wants to change, but refuses to change. This is especially true for casting. Whenever it’s because of arrogance or the lack of correct consulting, Sia’s comments prove that she made little to no effort in finding an actor on the autism spectrum for the lead. She tries to make up for it with the 13 actors with autism in supporting roles. While it’s great that they hired these actors, this continues the Hollywood trend of literally pushing actors with disabilities to the side. While abled-bodied actors get Emmy and Oscar recognition for lead roles, disabled actors get little roles as participation trophies.

The “you can’t act” insult was the most disgusting comment I ever read on Twitter. I believe it’s very clear based on the movie and her comments to actual people on the spectrum that she thinks people with autism are fragile and aren’t able to do anything. I am an actress with a disability (cerebral palsy). In the past (my upcoming movie “Best Summer Ever”) and the present (EPIC Players’ virtual production of “She Kills Monsters”), many of my acting colleagues have autism. And spoiler alert: They all can act wonderfully. They’re all enthusiastic. And they’re ready to work. They have agents. They get movie franchises (Anthony Hopkins). They get TV shows, such as “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay” (Kayla Cromer) and “Little Voice” (Kevin Valdez). Even Pixar made a short film starring a character with non-speaking autism (Madison Bandy).

Sure, there’s a chance an actor on the spectrum might have a meltdown when they’re frustrated or they’re exhausted as they wrap up a long day of shooting. But you can’t assume that will be a concern just because an actor is autistic. That’s why you ask them what they need to feel comfortable, and adjust your schedule with accommodations as needed, just as Pixar did with Bandy. It could affect the movie’s timeline, but it’s worth it for growth and equity. Casting an actor with autism isn’t “cruel.” It’s an opportunity and a huge message that says “Actors with autism are here and they can work.”

It was devastating to see a respected singer like Sia spew myths about actors with disabilities and bully them virtually. Even Anne Hathaway apologized for her character’s limb differences in “The Witches,” and she wasn’t involved with the design. It’s a pity that this is how we’re trending on Twitter. Instead of celebrating a movie that represents us (Hulu’s new movie “Run,” which stars newcomer Kiera Allen, who uses a wheelchair), we have to correct more Hollywood people on proper representation. I would say “Let’s learn from Sia’s mistakes and build a better tomorrow,” but obviously it’s not that easy.

Image via YouTube.