Sia’s new movie appalls, dangerously portrays autism

Meet Music, a teenager on the autism spectrum. Like many autistic people she is nonverbal, experiences meltdowns, and adheres to a strict schedule day-to-day – one that is disturbed by the death of her caretaker and grandmother.

While this death is what sets the rest of Sia’s Music into motion, it is far from the most heart-wrenching aspect of the movie’s initial twenty minutes. That spot for many autistic people is taken up by the infamous restraint scene, which is replicated soon after.
Another instantly noticeable aspect of the movie is the lack of accessibility. 

The opening sequence is overwhelming, with popping colors and flashing lights. Anyone knowledgeable on autism could tell of the issue of light sensitivity, and from a movie about inclusivity and representation, it’s disappointing to see such an oversight so early on.
Despite the signs, persistence through the film with an open mind, initially, proved necessary. The main cast is laid out for the audience early on, including Music herself, her half-sister Kazu or “Zu,” and their neighbor Ebo. Ebo is a man from Ghana who helped with Music due to having a late brother with autism.
While this has merit, there is a grave oversight in this aspect of the movie. Ebo explains to Zu that restraint calms Music down and he knows this due to his own brother being calmed by restraint. 

This puts a blanket over all autistic people, which is untrue and unsafe.
Restraint is a common and traumatic tool used against autistic people that has resulted in death in the most severe cases.  It is often used as an abuse tactic by neglectful and malicious teachers and caretakers of autistic individuals. 

The casual and frivolous idea that one tactic is fine for two autistic people easily can give the audience the wrong idea.

The distinct misunderstanding of autism is only challenged by a misuse of Music’s character and the abuse of nonwhite characters. Ebo, their only black character, who happens to be from Africa, has HIV.

On the note of the movie’s representation on a racial front, there have been issues. Most notably Ebo, a character named Felix, and Music. Music’s parents are never mentioned, and her and her sister are ambiguously white. 

Yet, there have been questionable uses of lighting, tans, and hair to put the character in a different light. A specific set of headphones is made to resemble box braids, and she is given a darkening tan. 

Felix is a nonverbal character with no mentioned autism or spectrum disorder – he simply is never granted a line. He is simply used, once again, without thought for him. Without development, he benefits the main cast and faces the more horrible scenes in the film including graphic domestic violence. 

Music uses its autistic character as a narrative propellant instead of as a character of her own. She is used for the development of others, ignored when not needed for a scene, and her only development is seen when vocalizing at the end of the film.

Which brings this review to the final glaring problem of Music, Music herself. The actress portraying her, Maddie Ziegler, is not autistic. Rather, her actions and vocalizations create a mockery of autistic people, a caricature.

To conclude, Music is not worth the trouble, the cost, or the mental energy. It’s easy to mention the actions of Sia, her work with Autism Speaks, and her behavior after receiving negative attention, but that’s unnecessary. The movie speaks for itself, and it’s not worth listening to.

Some alternatives for those who want to know more about autism include Loop, a short by Pixar,  and Keep the Change, both movies that allow autistic actors a chance into the spotlight and give hope to the industry.