Autism and PR: The Do’s and Don’ts

Recently reported quite heavily by the media has been the heavy backlash Sia’s received following the release of the trailer for her new movie, ‘Music’. Following the release of this trailer, the autism community got up-in-arms against Sia. Not only for the way she’s portrayed autism in her movie, but because of her views towards autism in general and the way she’s responded to it. This has resulted in the significant backlash against her, from both the autistic community, but various different allies as well, along with media outlets.

What’s unique about this is that it’s probably one the first major times that a major public figure has been criticised when it comes to autism and is baring the consequences of it quite publicly. Multiple news articles from news groups have been published discussing this at length, only increasing the scrutiny faced by Sia. This got me thinking, there isn’t really a ‘How to’ media guide for people when it comes to addressing autism. This means when somewhere wants to discuss or approach autism, it could potentially result in a PR disaster, as it did for Sia. So as an autistic person myself, I thought I’d just throw my two cents into the ring and briefly discuss what exactly went wrong for Sia, and how it could be avoided in the future.

The Context

First of all, we should look at the movie itself – the route reason for all this controversy. ‘Music’ is written, directed and produced by Sia herself, and follows ‘Music’ (who would’ve thought?’, an autistic, non-verbal girl as the main character. One of the mains reasons for this backlash is not that the movie has an autistic main character, but how she is portrayed. Rather than being played by an autistic actor, she is instead played by Maddie Ziegler, a frequent collaborator with Sia, and unfortunately for both Sia, the movie’s production team, and the autistic community: she isn’t autistic. This brings us to the first point:

Listen to Autistic people

The fact that Sia could’ve casted an autistic actor to play this role quite easily is one of the main talking points when it comes to reasons for the controversy. In fairness to Sia, she has stated she had previously casted an autistic actor in the role, only that she ended up being to stressed out by the production of the movie. However, this attempt at saving face fell only to flat-faces, as many autistic actors stated that they would’ve been ready to play the role at short notice, and brought up how she had a budget of $16 million, which could’ve supplied necessary accommodations for autistic actors anyway. This resulted in Sia coming into conflict with several disability activists and autistic actors on Twitter – rather than listening to their advice she lashed out of them as seen below. It is not a good luck for you if you end up publicly fighting with the same people you’re claiming to be supporting. This didn’t help Sia’s case at all. In order to avoid this, it is crucial that you have autistic people actively involved in your project from the very start: make sure that they’re voices are heard! If it is them you’re really trying to support, show it and listen to what they have to say!

Know your symbols

When asked about what symbol represents autism, most people would immediately think of the iconic puzzle piece used by various autism-related charities. However, the puzzle piece is widely viewed with negative connotations in the autistic community: it is thought to show that we are in complete as humans, and that we “have a piece meaning”, and “suffer from a puzzling condition”, as stated by the creator. Added on to this, the original puzzle piece symbol is depicted with a crying child in front of it, adding further gas to this fire! If you are choosing to have a campaign based around autism, instead of using the puzzle piece, I would highly recommend using the Neurodiversity infinity Symbol instead. This is the symbol most commonly used to represent the autism rights movement, and is the much more positively viewed.

The Neurodiversity Infinity Symbol
The original puzzle piece symbol

Watch Your Language

When it comes to talking about Autism, there’s a couple of ground rules to be aware of when it comes to how to phrase your language, and it can be an easy trap for one to fall into. For starters – identity first language rather than person first is the preferred by the majority of autistic people – well over 60% of autistic people agree on this. This means you should say ‘Autistic person’ rather than ‘person with autism’. The reason for this is because Autism is considered as part of an identity as much as physical appearance would be. Saying ‘person with autism’ is viewed as saying ‘person with tall’.

Functioning Labels are bad

Us autistic people have been going on about this one for years, we don’t like functioning labels! First of all, they cause an unnecessary division between autistic people, between those that would be called “high functioning” and those that would be “low functioning”. Differences between these 2 types are greatly emphasised among people, and are most commonly based off of stereotypes: high functioning autistic people are sociable and appear “more normal”, while low functioning autistic people are commonly thought to be quiet, reserved, and unable to communicate properly. Autistic people argue that these functioning labels are harmful for both sides here. In some of Sia’s tweets, she uses these functioning labels, which leaves a sour taste in our mouths. It leaves us wondering, “Is this really the person who claims she’s done 4 years of research on autism for this movie?”. Surely if she had actually done that, she’d at least have a clue.

Overall, the main advice I would give someone is this: do your research, and listen to the people you are supporting. Rather than going to people who are only connected to autistic people, go to them yourself and listen to what they have to say.

Lucas Fitzsimmons is a final year BSc in Communication Management and Public Relations student at Ulster University. He can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.