I’m Autistic. This Is Why SIA’s New Film, Music, Is Problematic

SIA Music

When you log into Twitter, you are likely going to be familiar with *that* feeling – the drop when your stomach flips, the sigh when scrolling through the general doom and gloom of the news that day. A pandemic does not have a lot of ‘bright’, or even ‘happy’ news.

You will have probably have seen the controversy surrounding the singer SIA recently. The #ActuallyAutistic hashtag was trending – and my Twitter feed was just a huge, ranty mess. My heart sank – because there was something not very pleasant, and it sort of applied to me, although very indirectly.

SIA released the new trailer to her upcoming film, Music. And the ensuring Twitter response really showed the reality of the situation.

SIA’s come under a lot of criticism online

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As an Autistic person, I have a number of challenges I deal with on a daily basis. I can be literal – enough so that language can trip me up. As a simplistic example, aphorisms like ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ are not helpful. Social conventions can elude me – such as turn-taking in conversations, which Zoom makes incredibly difficult. Noise is my worst enemy – enough so I carry headphones, even earplugs. I experience meltdowns. Employment has been a problem – because my label is seen, and not my ability. I love plans – and changes to my routine are so challenging. But this is just a surface glance.

I have an amount of privilege – something that is important to recognise. I can speak – albeit I have an odd speech pattern. I have a charity that supports me – something that not many people have access to. As a way of making space for others, I run a newsletter – and I commission Autistic people to contribute. It’s a small gesture – but it’s gradually being ‘scaled-up’.

Until I was fifteen, I ‘passed’ as someone Neurotypical. Those who present as female are often diagnosed later on in life – due to bias in diagnostic criteria, sexism, stereotypes. I can make eye contact, speak – and was rubbish at maths, far away from the savant known as Rainman. I could not possibly be on the spectrum! As it turns out, I was. My isolation, problems with organisation, engaging and interacting were more than just what was dismissed as a ‘character quirk’.

The way that we see ourselves, the way we interact with others, or even understand the world around us, is shaped by the media that we consume. It is not just newspapers – films, programmes, dramas, plays, music. They all tell a story, one that we can just ‘buy into’, even if only for a moment.

The way that we see ourselves, the way we interact with others, or even understand the world around us, is shaped by the media that we consume.

As a reporter, if I was ever tasked with covering a suicide, I would be obliged to omit certain details – to not inspire copycat acts. This on the advice of the Samaritans. We also know, thanks to a New York Times investigation, that the way Donald Trump has spoken about Covid 19 and China has impacted some US citizens – because it has contributed to hate crimes.

The trailer for Music was problematic from the get-go. Autism is a spectrum – and, just like everyone has a different interest, every Autistic person is different. Nowhere was this shouted from the rafters. This is often not taken into account when a mass consumes media – just look at how often Autistic people get asked if they are like Rainman! A consequence potentially will be that the lead character will brand those who are non-verbal as being unable to understand the world. This could not be further from the truth.

I’ll say it louder for the people in the back: Autism is not inspirational. People like myself are not your heroes – or even someone to look up to. Disability – as Autism is defined by the Equality Act – is not something that has inspiration attached to it. Autism is not a superpower or even the mark of a hero; that undermines our challenges. Can’t you see how problematic the film plot is? Music will deal with her challenges for the rest of her life. She can’t just magically ‘overcome’ them.

When it comes to the way we look at disability, we see people who have a disability through a guise, a lense. They are ‘heroes’, ‘inspirational’, ‘brave’. People tell me, regularly, that I am brave – for effectively being me. Where is the bravery in that? War reporters are brave – I am not brave for being born the way that I am. The film has been written via a neurotypical guise, too. It is about time that we changed this – and actually had some better representation. Like it or not, media we consume impacts the way we see the world, the way we see others.

SIA was very active on Twitter

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And can we talk about the way SIA reacted on Twitter? Questions are reasonable to ask of any public figure – and, granted, some did not do that, and took to trolling. But we wouldn’t speak over a demographic of people – so why is it acceptable to do that to Autistic people?

SIA took to the typically vindictive Twitter replies, a relic of the ‘clap-back’ era. You can argue about representation – but bowing down to swearing, insults like suggesting someone is just a bad actor, suggests to me little thought has gone into your project. The actress who will be playing the Autistic character watched meltdown videos, it has been suggested. That to me is beyond insensitive, and not appropriate. You would not mimic someone who has a limb difference – so why would you portray some of our most vulnerable moments on screen? It is akin to a caricature. Not to mention offensive.

People like myself took issue with the trailer – not the film, which has yet to be released. And yet we are told ‘oh, just give it a chance’. Maybe the demographic I am a member of should be given a chance, or a second chance – like when it comes to employment. Why should we be patient any more when we are still discriminated against?

Don’t even mention Autism Speaks. ‘Curing’ has been indirectly endorsed. And yet someone like SIA stands for difference. People like William Shatner tweeted support – like ABA therapy being available. It has caused PTSD and has been compared to ‘Gay conversion therapy’. A Google search will show you the debate around Autism Speaks.

Can’t we have something that is actually representative, and not through an inspirational trope? It’s 2020. I am done playing nice.

What do you make of this story? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook or Instagram pages! And if you enjoy listening to film podcasts, why not check out our podcasts, Small Screen Stories and Small Screen Film Club wherever you get your podcasts!

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