The Sia Controversy

I had never heard of anyone called Sia before. Serkan tells me she’s some kind of singer. A few days ago, on the Disability Arts Facebook Group, I came across a post complaining quite vociferously that she has a new film coming out in the spring called Music: the problem was, while it was about an autistic person, Sia hadn’t cast an autistic actor to play her. That, of course, echoes or perhaps usurps an argument people with physical disabilities have been making for decades. Perhaps the most notable example is My Left Foot (Jim Sheridan, 1989), which famously involved Daniel Day-Lewis playing a man with severe cerebral palsy. Only people with disabilities should be used to play characters who have that disability; only they can convey the lived experience. Otherwise it’s the cultural equivalent of blacking up.

That is an argument I completely agree with, and which I have made many times myself. In this case, however, what I read did not sit comfortably with me. For starters, the articles linked to from Facebook made absolutely no reference to the campaigns preceding it. It read as though they were saying something new, and that only those in the autistic community had been treated that way. Frankly it felt like a form of cultural intrusion. These days, it feels like more and more people are defining theirselves as autistic or neurodiverse, based upon wider and wider criteria. They then define theirselves as disabled, although they have no real knowledge of what it’s like to live a life like mine. They then style theirselves as disability rights campaigners or activists, taking the very language others have used for decades and applying it to theirselves, while seemingly ignoring what went before.

I realise this is controversial, but I find it infuriating. Of course it isn’t my place to cast aspersions on anyone else’s disability. Yet I know from my experiences, both growing up in a special school and now volunteering at one, what autism, particularly severe autism, looks like. It is profoundly disabling: people with autism need constant support; many are unable to communicate, even with a communication aid. From the look of the character in the trailer for Music, she has quite profound autism. There is no way you could get a person with such severe autism to act in a feature film; they simply wouldn’t understand what they were doing and, as Sia herself has said, it would even be cruel.

Yet now there seems to be an abundance of (usually) self-defining autistics on the web up in arms because they didn’t cast a person with autism in the role. Without wanting to generalise, it seems these people often have fairly little first hand knowledge of autism, but have diagnosed theirselves based upon a rapidly expanding set of criteria and what they have seen on programs like the Big Bang Theory. They like to imagine they are different from others (and, let’s face it, who doesn’t like thinking they’re special?) Once they decide they are autistic, they, perhaps unconsciously, seem to adopt the sorts of behaviours they think suit their new identity. Yet, put bluntly, they don’t know what they’re talking about: most fall well within what constitutes normal, healthy and able-bodied; thinking of theirselves as different only causes further upset. Expanding the criteria of what constitutes conditions like autism only encourages people to play such games. To be clear I’m not disputing anyone’s right to claim to be autistic, rather suggesting that the spectrum is becoming so broad that most people have traits which could be termed autistic, and that more and more people are focussing on those traits to differentiate theirselves from those they call neurotypical; an act which is becoming increasingly political. They do not need the constant support those with severe autism do, and not so long ago would have probably just got on with their lives. At the very least, they are capable and aware enough to make things like vlogs. Yet they argue that they are being underrepresented and disenfranchised because an actor like them wasn’t cast.

In other words, this argument is not theirs to make. The irony is, a person with autism as severe as this film seeks to depict wouldn’t have the political awareness to make such arguments. Thus those criticising Sia are not only usurping an argument from the wider disability community, they also presume to speak for others within their own.

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