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Sia's 'Music' angers the autism community: 'I don't even know where to start'

David Oliver, USA TODAY
·6 min read
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Sia's new movie "Music" has outraged the autism community, for both the casting of a neurotypical actress in the role of an autistic character as well as for showing scenes where the character is being restrained. And the criticisms don't end there.

In the film (now streaming), Music (played by Maddie Ziegler) is a young autistic woman who falls under the care of her half-sister Zu (Kate Hudson) after her grandmother dies (Mary Kay Place). Zu learns all about Music's daily routine with the help of Music's neighbor Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.) – and the movie becomes more problematic from there, according to advocates.

"I don't even know where to start," Camille Proctor, executive director and founder of The Color of Autism Foundation, told USA TODAY. She started her organization in 2009 shortly after her son was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. "I don't like the portrayal of the young autistic woman. I feel like (Ziegler) was doing parody."

The movie depicts Music being restrained as a means to calm her down – something the community has condemned.

Sia's new movie "Music," now streaming, has outraged the autism community.
Sia's new movie "Music," now streaming, has outraged the autism community.

"The autistic community has been fighting for decades to end the use of restraints that traumatize and kill," said Zoe Gross, director of advocacy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, in a statement. "Had the filmmakers chosen to meaningfully involve autistic people from the beginning, we could have told them how catastrophically irresponsible it is to encourage viewers to use the kind of deadly restraints that killed Max Benson, Eric Parsa, and many other members of our community."

Benson died in 2018 after staff at his school restrained him facedown for hours, according to the Sacramento Bee. He was 13 years old. His mother reached out to Sia, according to the Washington Post.

In the case of Parsa, a lawsuit alleges the 16-year-old with severe autism died when sheriff's deputies sat on him for nine minutes in an effort to restrain him, according to the New York Times.

Restraint is particularly dangerous for the autism community; an autistic person may not be able to tell you when they can't breathe.

Ziegler's casting angered people, as many had hoped to see an autistic actor in the role.

Yikes: Critics call Sia's film 'Music' a 'sentimental atrocity' with 'so, so many bad' decisions

The film received two Golden Globe nominations earlier this month – for best motion picture, musical or comedy, and best actress in a musical or comedy (Hudson) – and will now include a disclaimer upfront about restraint.

"MUSIC in no way condones or recommends the use of restraint on autistic people," the disclaimer will read, according to Variety and The Guardian. "There are autistic occupational therapists that specialize in sensory processing who can be consulted to explain safe ways to provide proprioceptive, deep-pressure feedback to help (with) meltdown safety."

Sia, who has since deleted her Twitter account, apologized and said the scenes will be removed "from all future printings," and that she "listened to the wrong people and that is my responsibility, my research was clearly not thorough enough, not wide enough." Some still praise the movie anyway, including the National Council on Severe Autism's president Jill Escher. USA TODAY has reached out to the film's representatives and Sia for comment.

Will Lasley of Brentwood, Tennessee, watched the whole movie and was upset by the depiction of autism. He is autistic.

"While I know there are people on the spectrum who act similarly to her, it doesn’t justify how ridiculous she acts," he says. "It doesn’t really look like she’s attempting to portray a real person."

Autistic critics have pointed out the movie is really about Hudson's character and not about Music. "Despite the movie’s eponymous title, Music, the character, is barely a person at all," Sara Luterman wrote for Slate. Matthew Rozsa wrote for Salon: "Music has no character arc to speak of and, aside from some pretentious interpretive song-and-dance numbers meant to put us 'in her mind,' we never get a sense of her personality or perspective."

Some backstory: Sia, facing backlash from autism community, adds disclaimer to 'Music,' deletes Twitter

Proctor said the one thing the movie got right was Hudson's character, "a callous relative (of an autistic person) who is selfish."

Maria Davis-Pierre, a licensed mental health counselor and the CEO and founder of Autism in Black Inc., doesn't think the film had the potential to get anything right. Davis-Pierre has a child with autism; her organization is for parents.

"The movie was filtered through the eyes of someone who was not in the community," she says. "And that's one of the biggest issues is when stories are filtered through the eyes of someone who doesn't understand."

Social media users criticized singer Sia last year for not casting someone on the autism spectrum to play an autistic character, though she doubled down on her decision at the time.

The singer/songwriter has heaped praise on Ziegler, an alum of Lifetime's "Dance Moms." Sia says the teen poured her heart into the role of Music, careful to portray the character in a respectful way.

The two previously worked together on Sia's single "Chandelier" video.

She regretted her response to criticisms later. "Looking back, I should have just shut up; I know that now," she told Australia's the Sydney Morning Herald.

Cal Montgomery was part of a group from disability-led nonprofit Communication First to advise Sia on the film – and their suggestions seem to have been "ignored."

Montgomery took issue with Music's apparent lack of grief when her grandmother died. "Her grief wouldn't look the same as neurotypical grief, and she obviously wouldn't be expressing in words. But you would expect a great deal of distress, not just when the routines are broken, but just at the fact that somebody really important to her has vanished and yet she's portrayed as basically unconnected to people."

If you're looking for films about the autism community, advocates recommended "The Reason I Jump," "Loop" and "In a Beat."

Advocates agree it's important stories about the autistic community are told on screen. They just want to be part of the process.

"We have an expertise that other people just don't," Montgomery says.

Contributing: Gary Dinges

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Music': Sia's new movie with Maddie Ziegler angers autism community