Lived experience is the arbiter of fiction; there would be no Lord of the Rings without Tolkien’s trauma, no The Shining without Stephen King’s loneliness, no Devil Wears Prada without Lauren Wiesberger’s memories of uppity fashion moguls. The point is: we are a species that weaves narrative from the threads of the lives we operate in. It’s what we do. Always have. Fiction is a tool to tell it how it is.
So, why are filmmakers so resistant to the lived experiences of neuroatypicals?
At the risk of saddling one with the sins of many: yeah, this is about Sia. Or at least, since the news broke of the singer’s public (and aggressive) spats with neurodivergent folk emerged, I can’t stop wondering why almost no one trusts autistic people to talk about what its like to be autistic.
Even filmmakers who seem to believe they are coming from a place of authentic allyship keep falling short of basic collaborative concepts: Take Rainman, Sheldon Cooper, Arnie Grape – who have become socially accepted figures of autistic ‘representation’. In all the above there is a lack of authentic neuroatypical voices near the production process. From a writer’s standpoint – does this not seem lazy? Presumptuous? Arrogant even, that you – someone who has, at most, watched select snippets of the autistic experience from the neurotypical gaze, think you can write a fully rounded character with limited input from the real thing?
Would you hire a travel writer who specialises in European destinations to pen a tourist guide for the Arctic? I would hope not! Just because they are a good writer doesn’t mean they know the terrain of an unseen land.
That is exactly the poor accuracy accepted when we lavish praise on actors and writers who attach themselves to the stories of differently-abled folk. They may perform a perception of a physicality & attitude, but they miss vital aspects of the truth. They haven’t walked the path. They haven’t seen the world from anywhere even slightly near that place – so why on earth do we expect them to be able to best relay the experience?
Autism is a permanent, alternate state of thought, processing, and experience – it can’t be ‘empathised’ into like different accents or personalities that allistic actors pride themselves on adopting.
This isn’t about your ego, there are just some places you cannot go without making a mockery of yourself and the real community.
People love to rebut this request for accuracy, and I’d like to ask…why? Time and time again I see rightfully concerned autistic or disabled folk told to shut up and be grateful for the caricatures of themselves they see in media because, “Actors are SUPPOSED to play someone different to themselves, actors ALWAYS play people they can’t relate to, THAT’s acting,” (unless you’re a disabled actor, then you can’t play anyone, apparently – not even yourself).
Of course, actors are talented people who can express themselves in a variety of unique roles. But are we really ignoring the experiential root of acting? There is an inherent familiarity to many of the most lauded film stars – the entertaining ‘themness’ that grows fandom and leads to typecasting. Jack Nicholan’s rage, to Robert Downey Jr’s confidence. Ian McKellen’s wisdom, or Steve martin’s crankiness. There is always a piece of them present, a personality brand – and yet no one questions their talent or impact.
So why is there apparently nil space for autistic people to familiarise themselves the same way? If Adam Sandler can sign a multi-million Netflix deal to play the SAME character in however many films, why do we suddenly draw the line at a disabled or neurodivergent person becoming familiar through the medium of film? I could imitate Kristen Stewart’s mannerisms in my sleep, but I rarely get to see my fellow autistic folks share their individuality on screen.
You only need to follow the #Actuallyautistic tag on Tiktok, Twitter or Instagram to see multitudes of FREE, community-minded art pieces, zines, short films, monologues, poetry, edits, skits, critiques, lessons, anecdotes.
Creativity is present from all parts of the spectrum, from those who are nonverbal to those who are in the middle of stimming to those who are depressed to those who are graduates to those who are in assisted living. They are there. They are talented. They are truthful. They are plenty. The only thing that seems to be lacking is an excuse for ignoring them.
There is no excuse for not involving a community in a project you claim is inspired by them. If you label your story as one about autism but find it ‘too stressful’ to include many in the work environment (even with funding and voluntary neurodivergent consultants at your disposal) then you must truly ask yourself: are you in some small, residual way, distrustful of the very people that you would like to propel you narrative? Are autistic people just characters to you, and not multi-faceted people that would love nothing more than to be part of the story you’re telling?
If you ignore them, you’re not speaking for someone – you’re speaking OVER them.
The typical allistic auteur writes or directs themselves into acclaimed projects every day – Ricky Gervais in his scathing brit-comedies, Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag, Tina Fey in 30 Rock, Alan Bennet’s satirical plays: if we applaud self-inspired art from one corner and then raise eyebrows at the thought of the same thing from autistic people – you are discriminating, pure and simple.
Are we really so protective of the straining, self-congratulatory so-call versatility of allistic performers that we would deny a neurodivergent artist any chance to authentically tell their story?
With so much stigma and ableism rife in the world, it seems more fruitful to receive art from the eye of the beholder. Van Gogh saw his sunflower and so he painted it, and so we love it. Comedians get into scenarios, and so they recount them, and so we laugh. There is nothing reductive about the closeness of the artist to the art, in most cases, I’d say it makes it better.
And it’s not just about art. Most companies continue to fail at envisioning a workforce that involves, let alone accommodates for perfectly willing autistic people – as half of employers still won’t hire an autistic person ON PRINCIPLE, and qualified people with a disability keep being sidelined.
If you think you can skirt around the issue by claiming that the autistic actors you selected were too difficult or too challenged by the project (talking to you, Sia) – I do not believe you. Not until film sets stop accommodating the disruptive antics of adored ‘method actors’. If you’re happy to see Jared Leto post vermin to his co-stars in the name of psychosis and Christian Bale scream at his crew while in the ‘headspace’ of a vigilante, then you can damn well think of ways to adjust the work environment around diligent performers who suffer from sensory issues or involuntary, temporary meltdowns.
This did not start, nor does it end with Sia’s miscast autism musical. Change is under way and still extremely necessary. People are hurt, and they continue to hurt over this double standard. But the same people continue to inspire.
Now that I’ve written what I think, I’m going to watch Everything Is Gonna be Okay – starring Lillian Carrier and Kayla Cromer. And watch the charming videos of Amina Mucciolo and Chloe Hayden. (Yeah, that was a massive hint – go watch! They’re a wonderful starting point for engaging with the real community.)
Thanks for reading.
by Abi Silverthorne
Abi is a freelance film + TV writer, Creative Writing graduate and unofficial biscoff expert. Her twitter is @_littlegail
Categories: Anything and Everything