Opinion | Hitting the wrong note: Sia should have cast an actor with autism as her latest film’s lead

Sia’s newest movie is yet another example of Hollywood using autistic narratives without involving people with autism in the process. It needs to change.

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Sia and Maddie arrive at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015.

Jenna Post, Arts Reporter


After a recent trailer for her upcoming movie, Music, singer Sia faced backlash from autistic people on social media. The controversy came after the trailer revealed that the titular character is a nonverbal autistic girl played by neurotypical actress and dancer Maddie Ziegler.

Upon receiving criticism for this casting decision, Sia quickly turned to Twitter to defend herself. Among her many tweets regarding the issue, she said the reason she didn’t cast an autistic actor was because the filming schedule was too demanding for actors with autism to handle.

An actor with autism challenged that notion by saying plenty of actors with autism, themselves included, can handle that environment and that it was just an excuse to cast neurotypicals. Sia tastelessly responded, “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.

The singer also attempted to fend off criticism by saying she worked with consultants on this film. The consultants she worked with are from the organization Autism Speaks, which some people with autism consider to be a hate group whose goal is to “cure” autism instead of accommodating the needs of autistic people. No autistic individuals served on their science advisory board until 2013, and the first to do so resigned because of rhetoric the board used.

There’s a problematic history of portraying autism in mainstream media. Generally, it’s portrayed one of two ways: the STEM/musical savant — think Atypical, The Good Doctor and The Big Bang Theory — or as damsels in distress, who are incapable of being independent and need a neurotypical savior.

Although there usually isn’t sinister intent behind these portrayals, they are almost always inaccurate to the lived experiences of the majority of autistic people, which largely contributes to the misconceptions many people hold about autism.

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The ethical thing to do when including characters with autism in the media is to make sure there are people with autism leading the way on-screen and behind the scenes. There are plenty of writers, actors, filmmakers, and sound designers with autism. The problem isn’t that there aren’t talented autistic creators available, it’s that they aren’t being sought out.

Nobody can portray autistic characters better than actors who have autism. Period. Lived experience is infinitely more valuable than the greatest acting courses on the planet. If the filming environment is too stressful, as Sia claims, then the environment needs to change, or the movie should not be made.

That’s one of the reasons it’s crucial to include autistic people on the technical side of moviemaking. Autism can cause those to have it that experience sensory stimuli differently than those without autism. Sometimes, certain stimuli can become too much and cause a meltdown, which seems to be Sia’s concern.

If people with autism were included on the technical team, they would be more aware of sensory issues that may arise during filming. Additionally, people with autism could include effects that more accurately portray the way they experience sensory issues, if that’s relevant to the character.

On the note of relevance to the character, it’s also important to recognize that autism is on a spectrum. The main character in Music is nonverbal autistic, and should therefore be played by a nonverbal actor. Not all people with autism experience the same struggles.

While not all people with autism are the same, all autistic people deserve better representation. Profiting off of the Hollywood portrayal of autism while dismissing and insulting real people is wrong. Creators like Sia need to take their criticism to heart instead of refusing to admit fault.


Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.


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