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Social media users are criticizing singer Sia for not casting someone on the autism spectrum to play an autistic character in her upcoming film “Music” – but the singer is doubling down on her decision.
The idea for “Music” first came to Sia about 15 years ago, when she wrote a short story, she said last month as part of Variety’s Power of Women: Conversations series. The film features Kate Hudson as Zu, who takes in her half-sister Music (Maddie Ziegler), who has autism spectrum disorder. Leslie Odom Jr. stars as a neighbor who assists with caring for Music.
Ziegler’s casting prompted scorn and accusations of ableism, which is defined as discrimination against those with disabilities.
“The fact Sia believes a neurotypical girl can act as an autistic girl solely because she believes her level of functioning is higher is ableism,” @worldofmila wrote. “The fact she gets hostile when the community tries to educate her instead of LISTENING exhibits her ableism and ignorance.”
“Sia really cast Maddie Ziegler to play a non-verbal autistic woman named MUSIC and was shocked people were mad,” @OrangePaulp wrote.
“Several autistic actors, myself included … We all said we could have acted in it on short notice. These excuses are just that- excuses,” @HelenAngel wrote on Twitter. “The fact of the matter is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic.”
“Maybe you’re just a bad actor,” Sia wrote back. In another reply to the same tweet, she wrote: “You have no (expletive) idea because you weren’t there and haven’t seen the movie.” USA TODAY has reached out to Sia’s and Ziegler’s reps for comment.
“Grrrrrrrrrr. (Expletives) why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY,” she wrote on in a separate tweet.
The National Institutes of Health defines autism spectrum disorder as “a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. Although autism can be diagnosed at any age, it is said to be a ‘developmental disorder’ because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life.”
The singer-songwriter has heaped praise on 18-year-old 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.”
“I want to work with her until the day I die,” Sia said in her Variety appearance. “She’s the most professional person I’ve ever worked with. We’re really close.”
But people aren’t buying this reasoning. “Hey – did you talk to anyone who’s disabled about their feelings towards this film? and the lack of representation by #ActuallyAutistic people in a movie that’s going to make money off of disability? Will @Sia be donating to causes that contribute to disability equality in arts?” @Kris10Parisi wrote on Twitter.
Sia wrote on social media that “there are thirteen people on the spectrum in the movie.”
Some fans did come to Sia’s defense, however.
“Hey! Sia actually worked really closely with an autism centre on the film and is trying to positively show that autism is a gift rather than a disability,” @supportingsia wrote.
Sia said she worked with autism advocacy organization Autism Speaks on the film. The group, however, has been the focus of criticism itself.
“This film was made with the backing and guidance of a charity dedicated to autism, and some people who are autistic.” one of her defenders, @georgecnolan, wrote in response to criticism.
“I had no idea it was such a polarizing group,” she wrote on Twitter in response.
“Sia’s film is a very clear example of issues (with) the charity model of disability. Rather than actually talking to disabled, in this case autistic people, people work with organisations assuming their own moral high ground and are shocked when we don’t want their charity,” @barisanhantu wrote.
Contributing: Gary Dinges