Inaccurate Depiction of Autism in Film – by Vanessa Willis

In a world where diversity and inclusion in popular media is becoming a more commonly discussed topic, the possibilities of meaningful stories being told are endless. The push for diversity encompasses people of all races, abilities, ethnicities, and genders, including people with intellectual disabilities, including Autism Spectrum Disorder. As the push to create media that tells the stories of people of varying backgrounds and life experiences continues and production companies purposefully try to create inclusive content, it is important that these stories are told with grace, truth, and reality. 

Pop musician Sia’s film Music (2021) depicts a young drug dealer who has recently become sober when she finds out that she must take care of her autistic half sister. The movie focuses on family, drug addiction, disabilities, and growth. The sisters work together to handle Music’s difficulties and fits and Zu’s drug rehabilitation efforts. The movie strives to inspire audiences about the importance of family using bright colors, musical montages, and choreography. Sounds enlightening, right? Here’s the problem, not one of the producers, writers, or stars were autistic. This lack of perspective takes what could be a meaningful story about the challenges of neurodivergence, into a mockery of ASD stereotypes. 

This created a wave of controversy across social media as people reacted to how the film chose to depict autistic individuals as reactive, childlike, irrational, and even violent. The Autisticats are a group of young autistic adults who share a social media account to advocate for autistic people, they shared their reaction on social media. 

“It’s deeply reminiscent of the exaggerated mannerism non-autistic people often employ when bullying autistic and developmentally disabled people for the ways we move,” they shared on Twitter as commentary on how the movies makes a caricature of neurodivergent individuals. 

The movie’s most controversial moment happened during one of Music’s tantrums, when she was held in a supine restraint, a type of restraint that has killed many autistic children. This moment shows how little thought was put into the depiction and treatment of the autistic character, proving these thoughtless attempts at inclusive media can be not only offensive, but dangerous. 

The solution: neurodivergent artists in places where neurodivergent stories are being told. Having even one actual autistic person involved in the making of Music, might have led to at least one of the endless offensive scenes being rethought. People who are actually autistic are familiar with autistic issues and more likely to create media that is inclusive, realistic, and representative of their communities and can provide unique perspectives to the production of media that centers neurodivergent individuals. 

One way this could be achieved would be allowing autistic actors to play autistic characters. Sadly, this is extremely rare. Netflix original series Atypical has received praise for its depiction of its autistic protagonist, but the actor depicting this character is not autistic. Similarly, the film Rain Man is praised for bringing a light to the autistic community and creating positivity about the once taboo topic, however the actor is not neurodivergent. Opportunities to play an autistic character can be life changing for autistic actors who are less likely to find work than their neurotypical peers. 

Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, a series on Freeform centers an autistic character, Matilda. Matilda is smart, caring, musically gifted, and extremely logical. Most importantly, Matilda is depicted by Kayla Cromer, an autistic actress. With Cromer’s expertise and guidance, the show depicts autism in a realistic and empowering way, showing that having neurodivergent individuals involved in the storytelling of neurodivergent characters is beneficial. 

As society moves forward and the media places emphasis on telling the stories of minorities of all kinds, it is crucial that people who are represented by the characters in a piece of media are actually members of that community. This allows these characters to empower others while accurately and effectively representing their own community. 

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