13/02/2021

I'm Non-Speaking, I Don't Need Sia To Talk For Me

This piece is part of a series of paid commissioned opinion pieces by Disabled writers. Disabled people are constantly asked to work for free, to give their opinion for free and to educate people for free, and so I have created this space to not only give Disabled writers the opportunity to write and speak, but to gain income as well. You can expect to hear from a wide variety of Disabled, Deaf and hard of hearing people, Neurodivergent people and those living with chronic and mental illness. This is entirely fundraised for, so if you can spare anything at all to help fund this then I would be so grateful if you donated to the Paypal Pool. 

I'm Non-Speaking, I Don't Need Sia To Talk For Me

Despite both the steady rise in autism media and the clamour for diversity in the entertainment industry, autistic actors and characters seldom grace the silver screen, and appearances by non-speakers and people who use AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) are even rarer. The scraps of autism representation in existence display a mosaic of stereotypes - from the nerdy misogynists presented in Atypical and The Big Bang Theory, to sympathetic savants in The Good Doctor, Rain Main, and Criminal Minds, to cardboard cut-outs teaching life lessons , as on House and Grey's Anatomy. The most recent addition to the pile comes from singer-songwriter Sia. Her debut film, Music, will be the first major motion picture to feature a non-speaking female protagonist who uses an AAC device. Unfortunately, the trail-blazing ends there, as the film's choice to exclude meaningful input from autistic creatives reveals an issue inherent to all mainstream autism media: Music's very inception hinges on the idea that autistic people need to be spoken for, and therefore reinforces all the harmful ideas it's predecessors have established. 

While the film has not been released outside of Australia as of this writing, a teaser released in November 2020 managed to condense an impressive number of harmful tropes into one minute. It opens with protagonist Zu reading a letter informing her that she's now the only person available to care for her autistic sister, the eponymous Music. We're then shown a helpful neighbour pontificating on the spectacular hidden world of non-speakers like Music, while she remains wordless in the background. The trailer closes with a montage of elaborate, garish dance numbers interposed between shots of the characters grinning at each other. 

To the non-autistic viewer, this is all innocuous enough - a yawn of generic images and bland dialogue desperate to inspire a non-autistic audience. But to a non-speaking AAC user such as myself, Music's caricatured expressions are just the start of the trailer's issues. The inspiration cues, the diaper dance costumes, the Care Bear-esque colour palette - these elements serve to infantilise autistic people, and they fail to mask a particular negativity towards people with communication disabilities. In all of this, we the audience are given a measly four words from Music herself, while her non-autistic caretakers constantly explain her experiences and what her autism should mean to us. Every disabled person knows this type of degradation- the assumption that we are not capable of controlling our own narratives - and when done to non-speakers, it can be especially dehumanising, even violent. For me, it has ripped away academic opportunities and crushed friendships. 

"Music's caricuated expressions are just the start of the trailer's issues."

Even when the words are ostensibly nice, they carry ableist views about non-speakers that have become enmeshed in the conversations on autism. Lines such as "she can understand everything you are saying to her... she sees the world in a completely different way from us" may seem like advocacy to speaking people, but in actuality, they exemplify an issue non-speakers have fought for years: that we geniuses locked inside broken bodies, and our worth as people is hidden in that intellect. Feeling locked-in is a familiar experience to me. It's a type of frustration that comes with having words constantly bubbling to come out, but never having a body that will cooperate enough to say them. But this isn't an experience that speaking people have the sensitivity or basic understanding to write themselves. Instead, it contributes to the ever-growing silencing of non-speakers, shutting us in even further as our voices are deliberately left out of the conversation. By tying our worth to out ability to think, then denying us the ability to share out thoughts, Sia reveals her true, if unconscious, hateful feelings towards non-speaking autistic people.

This representation has consequences for millions of autistic people and non-speakers. Already, access to communication is limited due to false assumptions within the medical community. Non-speakers judged to be unintelligent are not given access to training to use AAC, and prominent non-speakers are accused of faking when they learn to type, write, or point. Meanwhile, people like me, viewed by authority figures as too intelligent to be "that kind" of autistic, are assumed to be silent out of choice, are we are therefore cut off from correct diagnoses and support systems that can come with them. Music being the first makes its representation of non-speakers doubly important, because, like Rain Man before it, it will be the majority's only exposure to information on non-speakers and AAC. The false impressions made by this film, ranging from the eye-rollingly ignorant to the potentially lethal, will impact real non-speaking lives. The most powerful thing speaking people can do is to uplift works by nonspeaking creators. Investing in non-speakers' works combats the assumptions that devalue our lives and lock us in silence. 

Mickayla is an autistic AAC user studying psychology and linguistics. In her free time, she dances and writes SF/F stories featuring disabled characters. Follow Mickayla on Twitter here. 

6 comments:

  1. Thank you for your brilliant piece. As a mother to a non verbal child who uses AAC, I hope to ALWAYS respect his thoughts and feelings and not speak for him in my attempts to advocate and educate. I'm sure I will not be perfect in this endeavor, but it is feedback from the autistic adult community that helps me gain the perspective to get better.

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  2. Really important content that makes some crucial points. I'm mostly-speaking but I do have times when I go nonspeaking, and I've had people dismiss and ignore me on those occasions.

    It is ESSENTIAL that we amplify nonspeakers' voices.

    The whole film is so full of horrific myths, stereotypes, misconceptions and ableism.

    I'll be sharing this on the Autistic on Wheels Facebook page.

    Side-note: the font used in this blog is really hard to read for dyslexics like myself (I'm trying to identify the exact issue with it but struggling because I'm really tired at the moment; I think there's just slightly too much of a gap between each letter).

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  3. Thank you for this. Very in line with The Autisticats view on it too. Part of me doesn't want to watch it. Seen the trailer and don't like the representation. I agree it's a caricature.

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    1. Eden from The Autisticats watched it and made a few posts about what they saw, so if you want their analysis on it, you can find it there (assuming you haven't already seen it by now).

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  4. Thank you...

    I experience selective mutism under stress ... And isolation.

    I don't know if it's related... but may be...

    I need to know more. Thank you!

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  5. Thank you for sharing this - I was not even aware there were people like you, and I thought I was an ally.

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