Sia responds to backlash after casting Maddie Ziegler as autistic teen in new film Music
Thursday marked the trailer release for the movie Music, Grammy nominee Sia's directorial feature film debut. The first footage sees the young dancer Maddie Ziegler, a frequent Sia collaborator, portraying the title role of Music, a low-functioning autistic teenager who finds herself in the care of her half-sister Zu (Kate Hudson), a newly sober drug dealer. Sia, as she wrote in a series of responses on Twitter, based the film's story "completely" on her "neuro atypical [sic] friend." She wrote, "He found it too stressful being non verbal, and I made this movie with nothing but love for him and his mother."
Despite those intentions, something Sia would repeat over and over on social media in the hours that followed, the singer-songwriter found herself in the middle of what has become a heated conversation around accusations of ableism for casting Ziegler, a neurotypical actor, in the role of an autistic person.
At first, Sia attempted a dialogue with multiple Twitter users as many questioned whether she considered casting an autistic actor for the part. "My character was pretty low functioning and after attempting a few actors on the spectrum they suggested I use Maddie," Sia tweeted to one user. In another interaction, she mentioned, "I actually tried working with a a [sic] beautiful young girl non verbal on the spectrum and she found it unpleasant and stressful. So that's why I cast Maddie."
In other tweets, Sia said she came to the decision that casting an actor at so low-functioning a level as her character would be "cruel, not kind" after the actor found the process "extremely stressful and overwhelming."
According to Sia, the advocacy organization Autism Speaks came on board "long after the film was finished, four years in fact." Zoe Gross, director of operations at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, wrote to EW via email that, of the many concerns her organization has about the film, one is "the fact that the filmmakers partnered with Autism Speaks (an organization without autistic leadership whose advocacy priorities are in opposition to the autistic community) instead of with autistic-led organizations." A rep for Autism Speaks told EW that the organization "was not involved in the casting or production of the film, Music. Representation matters, and we believe autistic actors should always be given opportunities to play autistic characters."
Sia also said she spent three years researching and cast "thirteen neuroatypical people, three trans folk, and not as f---ing prostitutes or drug addicts but as doctors, nurses and singers. F---ing sad nobody's even seen the dang movie. My heart has always been in the right place."
Further replies from Sia, however, only enflamed the ongoing critiques. "Grrrrrrrrrr. F---ity f--- why don't you watch my film before you judge it? FURY," she tweeted. But the biggest point of contention users point to involves a conversation with an autistic actor.
"Several autistic actors, myself included, responded to these tweets," a user wrote to Sia. "We all said we could have acted in it on short notice. These excuses are just that — excuses. The fact of the matter is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic."
Sia replied, "Maybe you're just a bad actor."
A rep for Sia did not respond to EW's request for further comment.
The National Autistic Society in the U.K. was among those engaging on the topic on social media. "@sia has got this one wrong," the organization wrote while promoting the work of autistic actors who participated in one of their campaigns. The American Association of People with Disabilities in Washington, D.C., encouraged their followers to not even watch the Music trailer and instead "check out the work of actual disabled people trying to make it as artists, media creators, producers, and more."
"There's a lot to be concerned about with this film, including — but definitely not limited to — the casting," Gross of ASAN said. "We're concerned about what messages the film will send about autism."
She adds, "We are particularly alarmed that Sia has said it would be 'cruel' to cast a nonspeaking autistic person as an actor. It suggests that she thinks that autistic people don't understand our own lives and aren't the people who should be telling our own stories. When people tell stories about autism that cut out an autistic point of view, when storytellers view us as objects to tell inspirational stories about, or when autism is treated as a narrative device rather than as a disability community full of real people, the stories that are told fall flat, don't speak to our reality, and are often harmful to us."
Gross also points to how the film revolves around a character becoming the guardian of her autistic sister. "If the autistic character is an adult, like the actress playing her, the focus on guardianship is extremely concerning," she explains. "Families of young adults with disabilities are often steered towards guardianship, which involves removing a person's legal rights. Alternatives to guardianship, such as supported decision-making, can be used to help people with all levels of support needs, including nonspeaking autistic people, retain their legal rights while still receiving supports in adulthood."
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Autism Society of America called itself an organization that "advocates for more neuro-diversity in Hollywood throughout all roles within the industry, and has highlighted this need through our annual Autfest Film Festival."
"Casting neuro-diverse actors to play autistic characters offers authenticity and contributes to the societal shift needed for more inclusion," the statement continues. "While the Autism Society is not familiar with the casting and development specifics that went into creating Music, it is without doubt that adaptability and a supportive work environment are some of the pillars needed for successful competitive integrated employment. The Autism Society appreciates all storytellers who aim to authentically represent and advocate for the autism community in a thoughtful, engaged way that includes the autism community throughout the entire process."
Music, co-written by Sia and Dallas Clayton, also features Leslie Odom Jr. in what is a combination of movie musicals, dance, and scripted narrative. The film is scheduled for release in limited IMAX locations this February. An album of the same name, accompanied by the single "Hey Boy," will be released on Feb. 12.
Gross and ASAN found it "deeply disappointing to see Sia using her platform to attack autistic people who've spoken up about their concerns about the film." "When you speak over a marginalized community to tell their story without their input, people will object to that," says Gross. "If Sia truly wants to be an ally to the autistic community, she should listen to the feedback she's getting and learn from autistic people about how we want to be represented."
This article has been updated with statements from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and Autism Speaks.