Contrasting Stereotypes of Autism in Recent Media

Image (c) Don Arnold/Getty Images

I’ve wanted to write about Sia’s new film, Music, for some time. I’d even planned the title: The Trouble with Sia’s “Music”. Love a bit of wordplay, me. The thing is, I was terrified of putting pen to paper in fear of just brain dumping all the things that are wrong with the film and its production, and I wanted to do more than just giving the film a good bashing. I wanted to write something that would be insightful.

Music is Sia’s first foray into film production, and centres around a former addict becoming the sole guardian for her autistic half-sister. The film has received a lot of criticism, even back when the trailer was released ( this is a great example from Time Magazine). The criticism was wide ranging, covering topics such as casting a neurotypical actor (who Sia had already worked with more than once) to play an autistic character, having a scene depicting forcible restraint, and consulting with an autism charity that promotes “cures” proven to cause PTSD. Plus, well, reviews show that the film just isn’t that good (see this 1 star review from the Guardian).

And so, surprisingly, I was grateful to Sir Simon Baron Cohen. You probably haven’t heard of him but I know what you’re thinking, and yes, he is the lesser known cousin of Sacha. He is a professor specialising in autism who has recently been promoting his new book called “The Pattern Seekers”.

What does this unlikely duo have in common? Well, both have been in the media recently, perpetuating stereotypes of autism. The stereotypes they are reinforcing are polar opposites, but both are equally damaging.

Sia was nominated for a Golden Globe last weekend for the film she reckons is a “love letter” to the autistic community. (Here is another article from the Independent outlining why that isn’t the case.) Focussing just on the stereotyping issue, those of you who read my last blog will know that a lot of “stereotypically autistic” people have other diagnoses too. And yet here is another portrayal of an autistic character who is non-verbal, holds themselves awkwardly, and is not given a voice (and by the way, none of those things appear in the strict diagnostic criteria).

Why is this damaging for autistic people?

Because a lot of autistic people are muddling through life, holding down a job, a marriage, raising kids. You might not even know they are autistic. You certainly wouldn’t be able to tell by the way they walk. Sia had an opportunity to give the autistic community a voice, and that community feels she let them down.

At the other end of the scale is Sir Simon. Oh, Sir Simon. He’s one of the leading academics specialising in autism and yet… he also misses the mark. His heart is in the right place, but Baron Cohen has recently released a book suggesting that “Autistic people have really contributed to human progress”; that “the genes for autism drove the evolution of human invention” (article here)… No pressure, then!

So which is it? Are autistic people non-verbal, ear defender-wearers who have to use computers to communicate? Or are they geniuses who are single handedly responsible for human progression?

The answer is neither… and both.

There are two points here. The first is that “when you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person” – there is no blue print. And secondly, things like being non-verbal or having a stroke of genius can be transient or subjective. We’ve all been speechless before. Some autistic people have a similar sensation when they are overwhelmed and physically can’t get words out. But they can still hold a conversation 99% of the time. Equally, a different way of thinking might mean an autistic person sheds light on a problem your team is trying to solve. Does it make them a genius? Probably not.

So I want to appeal to you. Please, read about autism. Watch Hannah Gadsby’s “Douglas” on Netflix. Listen to the BBC’s “1800 Seconds on Autism” podcast. But whichever medium you are consuming, think about what you are reading or hearing and critique it. What is the author trying to achieve? Because I can tell you with certainty that no-one is going to win a Golden Globe or earn a knighthood by suggesting that autistic people are just like you and me.

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