Music and autism misrepresentation in media

Sia’s newest movie, Music, was released on Feb. 10. Since its announcement through the trailer, this film has sparked controversy and outrage among the autistic community and its many allies.

Written by Sia and Dallas Clayton, the film follows a young autistic girl named Music, her sister Kazu, and the family they create together. It stars Kate Hudson as Kazu and Maddie Ziegler as Music. Ziegler’s acceptance of the role of Music and Sia’s hiring of Ziegler, a neurotypical actress, is what makes the movie so controversial. In addition to this, the film deals with a number of intense subject matters such as "restraint," which appears to be portrayed in an ignorant and unqualified manner by Sia despite her claim of having advisors present during the construction. Further complicating the matter, as quoted by BBC News, the movie has been nominated for several Golden Globe Awards, which only bolsters the fictitious and inaccurate representation of autism.

News platforms such as The Guardian, The New York Times, and New York Post were among others in covering the movie’s content through opinion pieces. The Guardian's Simran Haus claimed that Ziegler’s acting was “a problem, especially given the cartoonishness of her portrayal, which sees her gurning, grimacing, and mumbling through her scenes.” The New York TimesTeo Bugbee wrote that “Ziegler’s dancing is as expressive as ever, but she has been directed to pantomime an exaggerated apery of disability. [...] the choreography leads her through a cruel approximation of twitches and whoops.” New York Post’s Johnny Oleksinski wrote that Ziegler’s facial expressions and character portrayal are “an uncomfortably heightened imitation that never rings true and verges on mockery.”

A group called NeuroClastic, run by members of the autistic community, constructed a guide for viewing the movie. It outlines specific themes and topics and discusses them from the perspective of autistic people. It also provides resources for those who are interested in reading more on the topics that the movie covers or just interested in learning more about autism.

One article covers the destructive nature of Autism Speaks, an organization that Sia consulted while assembling her film. The dominant issue with Autism Speaks as an organization is their affirmation that autism can be “conquered” as a disease. “The problem? Autism is not a disease to be battled and conquered. It is considered a developmental disability. It is a neurological difference in brain wiring. Cancer is a disease. Autism is not.” The article goes on to outline that “Autism Speaks created a culture, identity, and their own version of 'the autism community.’”

Cheyenne Thornton wrote an article on NeuroClastic describing individual experiences and also covering the research and subsequent execution of the film in relation to prior research. “From the moment I heard Sia describe her project as a such, I knew there would be problems. Don’t get me wrong, many of us would be happy to see themselves represented on screen at all — but we have hit a threshold of not being able to tolerate ‘at least they tried’ anymore.” She continues in the article to explore the reasoning behind why many people back autism organizations, yet don’t understand that the information being promoted is “demeaning, archaic information taught about autism when the solution to having an autistic kid was institutionalization.”

After being advised from both news sources and credible sites such as NeuroClastic, it is evident that this movie was vastly underprepared and under-researched. The movie is currently playing in theaters and runs for 1 hour and 47 minutes. Not surprisingly, it received a 9 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, a critics website which deemed the movie as “Offensive in its depiction of autism — and painfully misguided in essentially every respect.”