Behind Hollywood’s silver screen, the media is still lacking the representation of neurodivergent individuals. Neurodivergence is defined as having a brain that functions differently from the societal standards of “normal,” which includes people with autism.
Hollywood’s frequent shows of ableism openly exclude talented actors and actresses with autism. It is offensive and revolting to know that multiple TV series and films star non-autistic actors playing characters with autism.
Actors and actresses with autism should be given more opportunities to play leading roles in films and shows. Further, directors should not cast non-autistic actors as characters with autism because they do not endure the same experiences. Neurodivergent representations call for the fair employment of people with autism, instead of telling stories for the sake of popularity.
One example is Sia’s film “Music,”which received a lot of criticism when it was released because Maddie Ziegler, a non-autistic actress, was casted to be a person with autism. Prior to casting Ziegler, director Sia tried to work with a non-verbal girl with autism, but said she “found it unpleasant and stressful” because the role was “too demanding,” ultimately causing Sia to give the role to Ziegler.
This is a recurring problem actors with autism face when trying to audition. Directors, producers and casting directors use the excuse that individuals with autism are difficult to collaborate with or just don’t fit the role, which is utterly discriminatory.
Netflix’s series, “Atypical,” is another form of ableism in Hollywood. The main character, Sam Gardner, is a teen with autism who is played by non-autistic actor Keir Gilchrist. When a viewer questioned why they didn’t cast an actor with autism, the show’s official Twitter account replied, “Auditions for Sam included autistic actors, but Keir was cast as best for the role. The cast does include autistic people.”
It is ironic that their reasoning for casting Keir was because he was “best for the role” when actual actors with autism had auditioned for the role and were eventually singled out and deprived of the opportunity to share their stories with viewers.
After receiving backlash from individuals with autism, the show hired actors with autism and crew members in a seemingly performative fashion. However, the director could have prevented adverse reactions if they had hired an actor with autism for the lead, other actors with autism and crew members with autism to begin with.
In order to have shows with neurodivergent characters who are authentic and accurately represent the community, directors and producers must hire people with autism from the start.
Even when actors with autism are hired, their characters end up minimized and sidelined. The roles given to actors with autism seem to be short lived as they don’t have much screen time.
Both “Music” and “Atypical” failed to accurately depict people with autism because they relied on autism stereotypes. It is necessary to openly welcome people with autism in Hollywood to provide insight into these stories and call out productions that get their stories wrong.
The Pixar short “Loop”is an example of how casting actors with autism and collaborating with the community can create a product that is both truthful and enjoyable. The studio casted Madison Bandy, a girl with non-verbal autism, to play the main character. This short is a true representation of autism on and off screen.
Director Erica Milsom also met with consultants of Autistic Self Advocacy Network to get a better understanding of the non-verbal character. She invested countless hours of time and effort to ensure that the character was authentic and precise rather than crafting a stereotypical character.
Milsom said that her motto, which she read online is “nothing about us without us.” That is the standard that every production studio in Hollywood must follow.
Other than the on-screen representation, more film productions need to be accepting and equitable for autistic directors, producers and other film crew workers. Programs like Exceptional Minds help prepare young adults with autism for careers in animation, visual effects and other fields in the entertainment industry. The program provides customized training and hands-on experience. Programs like this help people with autism gain work experience in the film and entertainment industries.
Disability discrimination laws must be exercised to ensure that autistic actors get roles. The film and TV industries must abide by and actively promote anti-discrimination rules that are in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and gives them the chance to have equal opportunities as non-disabled people.
It is time for actors with disabilities to have equal rights as non-disabled actors. Hollywood will continue to lack neurodiversity until it starts casting and hiring crew members with autism.