Dear Hollywood, you're not meeting our special needs.
We still have a long way to go when it comes to autism representation.
Award season is already here, and the Golden Globes just announced their nominations. While most people are upset by the lack of nominations given to Tenet, I and many other autistic individuals are furious that Music received two nominations. For those not in the know, this project was directed by Australian singer Sia and focuses on a recovering drug addict who is left with her nonverbal autistic sister in her care. It shines a light on autistic females, which is something that rarely happens, and it's now being recognized by one of the biggest award ceremonies in Hollywood. Why are we furious at this? Because this movie is the biggest piece of inspiration porn to come onto the mainstream movie scene since 1994's Forrest Gump.
Before you ask, no, inspiration porn has nothing to do with actual porn that you watch behind locked doors. It's the portrayal of disabled people as inspirational solely or in part on the basis of their disability. For example, let's say that someone posts a video of me working as a cashier with the caption, "Look at this girl go! She's autistic and she can hold a job!" You wouldn't post something like that for a neurotypical person, would you? Anyone can be a cashier, even disabled people. Another example would be a popular student taking a classmate with Downs Syndrome to a school dance so they can look like a good person. We can tell that you're only doing this to make yourself look good, especially since you're going to stop talking to the person later. Most TV shows and movies that supposedly focus on autism are clearly examples of inspirational porn, and you can tell by the people who make them. If the creators behind these projects are neurotypical, have little to no relationships with autistic people, didn't consult with several autistic people and doctors, and didn't even bother to cast actually autistic actors, then it's clear that they didn't make these for the purpose of properly representing the community. Honestly, they probably did it because they have a savior complex and want to be seen as a good person to the public rather than actually be a good person.
Sia didn't make her savior complex a secret when she announced her film to the public. The second she received criticism from the community for collaborating with the infamous hate group Autism Speaks and casting the non-autistic Maddie Ziegler in the autistic role of Music (yes, that's seriously the character's name), the singer threw a tantrum far too childish for your typical autistic child to throw. Instead of taking the community she wished to represent seriously, the 45-year-old threw insults and obscenities at them and defended her tone-deaf choices. Any sensible person would have taken the criticism seriously and either delay the film's release to make some changes or just delete the whole thing altogether, but Karen refused to step down. She seemed quite proud of herself in interviews promoting the piece of garbage as she infantilized the community by referring to them as "people with special abilities" and "magical people" and talking about how "pure" the community is. In case you didn't know, we autistic adults do adult things like drink and do taxes, but you never see that in the movies. She also had no problem with her Variety interviewer Shirley Halperin referring to us as "inanimate objects", which is extremely dehumanizing. As for the casting of Maddie as Music (seriously, what the hell is up with this name?), Sia claimed that she initially hired an autistic actress and then decided to fire her rather than provide the proper workplace accommodations. Hollywood divas can refuse to appear onset if they don't have certain meals and products delivered to their dressing rooms, but a rich woman who claimed to have done research on Autism Spectrum Disorder for two or three years can't be bothered to provide a better acting environment for a disabled girl. Then again, there's an interview from 2015 in which Sia revealed that she wrote a movie with her favorite Dance Moms star in mind for the lead role, so we now know that she never actually cast an autistic actress. She also stated that she wanted to make a Rain Man musical with girls, and if that doesn't scream INSPIRATION PORN, I don't know what does. Oh, and to top it all off, it has since been revealed that the little white autistic girl in the movie was actually based on a black autistic man. I can appreciate Sia changing the gender since autistic females get little to no representation in the media, but black autistics are often overlooked. Talk about a missed opportunity.
During Sia's little temper tantrum, she ordered her critics to watch her movie before they judge it. The majority of those who watched it weren't very kind to her ableist depiction, and the backlash was enough for Autism Speaks to deny their involvement with the film. Some of the viewers went so far as to leak the entire plot and some clips online. The clips in question display Music being pinned down during meltdowns by her sister Zu, played by Almost Famous star Kate Hudson, and a neighbor named Ebo, played by Leslie Odom Jr., the damn fool who shot Hamilton. What they're displaying is known as a prone restraint, which is a dangerous and controversial way of calming down an autistic individual during a meltdown. According to the Autism Self Advocacy Network, this move is dangerous and is actually illegal in thirty states. “Music doesn’t just promote harmful stereotypes about autistic people," states the organization's Director of Advocacy, Zoe Grass. "It shows restraints that have killed members of our community as necessary and loving acts.” Just last month, an autistic teen from Louisiana named Eric Parsa was killed when policemen performed a prone restraint on him and sat on him for nine minutes, suffocating him. This sadly isn't the first time sometime like this has happened, and if Music continues to be senselessly praised by the movie industry, it most likely won't be the last. Last year, a white autistic boy was shot by the police when his mother called them to respond to his meltdown, and he thankfully survived the ordeal. Even though autistics of all races, genders, and ages have been senselessly murdered by police and family over the years, the film's glorification of prone restraints will undoubtfully put more black autistic lives in danger. Black disabled lives are faced with more prejudice and mistreatment than white disabled lives, and they sadly still face this even after the BLM movement last year. Last year, one of the biggest stories regarding racial injustice centered on Matthew Rushin, a black autistic man who was given a fifty-year jail sentence for a non-fatal car crash. It's bad enough that black lives are wrongfully given long sentences, but an autistic man had to be given the short end of the stick. It would've been more empowering to have Music be played by a black autistic actress, but then it probably would've been more stigmatizing given Sia's direction. Either way, her illustration of the spectrum is going to do more harm than good if Hollywood doesn't shut it down now while they still can.
If you've seen Tropic Thunder, then you know that you should never go full r****d. According to Robert Downey Jr., actors who go too far into playing disabled roles for the sake of praise and awards don't get very far in their career. The ironic thing is that Hollywood has truly become the parody that the film portrayed it as; it is an industry that has no problem exploiting the disabled community for the almighty dollar. Even though the Golden Globes could've given recognition to the series Everything's Gonna Be Okay, which beautifully features an autistic actress in an autistic role, they'd rather shine an overwhelming spotlight on what is essentially Simple Jack the Musical. I really hope that the Academy doesn't row down the river in the same boat because they are one of my special interests, but I still have hope. After all, they had recently been more diverse in their distribution by recognizing films like Parasite, Roma, Moonlight, and Get Out. If they can step up their game by not focusing so much on white people, maybe they can finally learn their lesson from Forrest Gump and What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and leave inspirational porn out of their ceremony. Despite the promotion of the autism stereotype we autistics all know and despise, I have to give credit to the Academy for awarding Rain Man for its accurate depiction and bringing representation for the community to the mainstream audience. They at least got that right, and I hope that they will continue to praise accurate representation in a way that doesn't encourage stereotypes. If this current award season proves anything so far, it's that we still have a long way to go when it comes to accurate autism representation.
Pervez, Noor. “Disability Organizations: MUSIC Is Dangerous.” Autistic Self Advocacy Network, 3 Feb. 2021, autisticadvocacy.org/2021/02/disability-organizations-music-is-dangerous/.
Andone, Dakin. “A Teen with Autism Died after Louisiana Deputies Sat on Him for 9 Minutes, Parents' Lawsuit Says.” CNN, Cable News Network, 15 Jan. 2021, www.cnn.com/2021/01/15/us/teenager-autism-dies-louisiana-sheriff-lawsuit-trnd/index.html.
Treisman, Rachel. “13-Year-Old Boy With Autism Disorder Shot By Salt Lake City Police.” NPR, NPR, 9 Sept. 2020, www.npr.org/2020/09/09/910975499/autistic-13-year-old-boy-shot-by-salt-lake-city-police.
“Autistic Black Man Sentenced To 50 Years In Prison For Non-Fatal Accident: Parents Outraged, Asking Va. Gov. To Pardon Him.” Pete Earley, 10 Aug. 2020, www.peteearley.com/2020/08/10/autistic-black-man-sentenced-to-50-years-in-prison-for-non-fatal-accident-parents-outraged-asking-va-gov-to-pardon-him/.