Sia Criticized Over Autism Representation in Film Music

By Preslee Adams, Staff Writer

On November 19, 2020, Sia teased a trailer for her new film Music, a story about an autistic teenage girl played by dancer Maddie Ziegler. The response to her movie has been far from positive. 


The backlash was due to a neurotypical performer– Maddie Ziegler– playing an autistic girl in her role. Human rights activists, those on and outside of the autistic spectrum, spoke up about the film’s insensitive stereotypes and visual effects, requesting that Sia’s team cancel the premiere.


Many social media users accused Sia of being ableist, inferring that Sia had failed to consider those with the experience of autism for her movie. The comments under Sia’s initial tweet pointed out the importance of accurately representing disabilities on-screen, and autistic actors should play autistic roles. Others took the issue with how the lead was portrayed, claiming it as inaccurate and reprehensible.


People in the film industry even spoke up about Sia’s insensitive portrayal, most notably actor Bronagh Waugh. Waugh reacted to Sia’s tweet, saying, “Hi Sia, can I ask why you didn’t cast a disabled actor for this part? It’s pretty offensive the way you’ve chosen to portray this character. People with disabilities are not broken and don’t need fixing.” Theatrical contributor Jordana Golbourn chimed in as well to say, “This is totally unacceptable, and there are no excuses; you should know better than to allow able-bodied & neurotypical [people] to represent the disabled community. It’s incredibly offensive, as is the infantilization of the character. Sickened.”


Sia later took to social media, responding to the criticism, denying much of the claims. She described the casting process and explained that she intended to cast a nonverbal autistic actor, but the actor found the situation to be too stressful. Sia also claimed she based her film on an autistic friend and that she had neuroatypical specialists to consult her throughout the production.


“I actually tried working with a beautiful young girl nonverbal on the spectrum and she found it unpleasant and stressful,” Sia wrote. “So that’s why I cast Maddie.”


Autism advocacy groups have also given their take on the situation, mentioning that they are upset and concerned. The National Autistic Society put out a statement saying, “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…the stories that are told fall flat, don’t speak to our reality, and are often harmful to us.”


Despite criticism, Music is still expected to release in February of next year.