“You can’t please all of the people all of the time. But by listening to members of that particular community, you are more likely to create a character that is authentic.”
BY SOPHIE GRIFFITHS
Last week Sia caused a stir online with the release of the trailer for her new film, Music, which stars Maddie Ziegler as a non-speaking autistic girl. The controversy was sparked due to the fact neither Sia nor lead actor Maddie Ziegler are autistic themselves.
Not only have people’s responses to the trailer propelled the conversation about ableism in the arts, but also about representation, particularly of autism, in the media.
The singer’s directorial debut follows Music, a young girl with nonverbal autism, who finds herself in the care of her older half-sister, the newly sober Zu (played by Kate Hudson).
A press release describes the film as “a wholly original exploration of the healing power of love and the importance of community.”
Sia stated that she based Music’s character on an autistic friend of hers, and that she had a pair of neuroatypical consultants around her at all times while making the film.
She also explained that she originally attempted to cast someone on the spectrum, but because of the rapid shooting schedule and the level of functionality of the character, she decided to go with Maddie instead.
I’m sorry we were never introduced. My character was pretty low functioning and after attempting a few actors on the spectrum they suggested I use Maddie.— sia (@Sia) November 20, 2020
There are so few representations of female autistic adults on the screen, in novels, at the theatre or in audio plays. As members of the LGBTQI community, we all know important it is to see ourselves represented.
We spoke to Samantha Grierson, an autistic writer who has experience of writing both queer and autistic characters through her recent audio play Henpire and upcoming project Crocodile.
After her daughter received an autism diagnosis at six years old, Sam began to consider the own traits that she identified with and managed to get a private assessment that confirmed her suspicions.
Sam told DIVA: “I haven’t seen the film so I can’t comment on it and neither have most people who are commenting on it. What we do know is that actors act. Gay actors act straight parts and visa versa etc. Rather than have a blanket rule that says you have to do XYZ, maybe it’s better to take each project on a case by case basis.”
“For example, in Henpire the audio play that I wrote, there is a character called Drax who is, amongst other things autistic. She is played by a neurotypical actor, Heather Peace. I created and wrote Henpire, co-produced it directed the character of Drax. From my viewpoint as an autistic person I feel confident that I have handled the character respectfully, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. But by listening to members of that particular community, you are more likely to create a character that is authentic.”
When the opportunity arose to write Henpire, Sam wanted to make sure that one of the story lines was about a character who had received a later life diagnosis of autism and the impact that had on her life, hence Drax was born.
She tells DIVA: “I needed to find someone who could channel Drax’s energy and dead pan delivery whilst also being able to relate to and convey the challenges that I present the character with. Having chatted extensively with Heather during the audition process, it became clear very quickly that she could relate to many of Drax’s traits, she had great comedy timing, a quirky energy and was also open to being very closely directed in order to get my vision of Drax across. Drax is not meant to represent every autistic adult female, she is just Drax.”
The only way we can improve both queer and autistic representation in the media is by telling these stories in more diverse ways. We need more autistic characters that are complex, and that can represent the community with the right amount of depth and authenticity, in order to broaden society’s idea of what being autistic looks like. Without involving autistic people, who have the knowledge of these experiences, in the writing of these stories it will be impossible to provide representations that are meaningful and sufficient.
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