In 1993, Leonardo DiCaprio took on the role of a boy with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. DiCaprio received rave reviews for his performance, critics called it “heartbreakingly real,” and DiCaprio was even nominated for an Oscar. The movie was a success, but it must be considered that DiCaprio, a neurotypical actor, took on the role of an autistic person. In comparison, Music, a 2021 film directed by Sia, was dragged for its representation of autistic people, and was dubbed “a disgusting piece of ableist garbage.”
With both films starring non-autistic actors as neurodivergent characters, one begins to wonder why the two productions received such different reviews. And most importantly, should non-autistic actors be allowed to play these roles?
There are many issues concerning Music, such as Sia’s teaming up with the organization Autism Speaks, which views autism as a curable disease. Additionally, there is a violent restraint scene, a practice which is triggering and oftentimes lethal. However, the issue that viewers tend to point out is that the actress, Maddie Ziegler, is not autistic. When watching the movie, it is clear that extensive research and input from autistic people were not stressed during production. Ziegler’s mannerisms come off as a mockery of stereotypical expressions of autistic people.
Even with movies like What’s Eating Gilbert Great and the Netflix original series Atypical, which have not received nearly as much negative feedback as Music, the issue of non-autistic actors is always the first thing to be called out when criticizing these productions. Is that truly the issue with characters like these?
It’s crucial to consider that the thoughts of people with autism matter above all on these subjects. Yet even among the neurodivergent community, there doesn’t appear to be a clear solution. Blogs like A is Aoife Not Autism, a slice-of-life blog written by someone with Asperger’s, posted rave reviews for actors like DiCaprio in their roles as neurodivergent characters. Anthony Piccione, a playwright with autism has said that “[they] personally don’t think it should be seen as an overwhelmingly negative factor that the actor playing an autistic character is not on the spectrum [themselves].” What matters most, according to Piccione, is that people with autism are a key part of the writing and production process. If a neurotypical actor portrays a character respectfully, many don’t mind if they are not on the spectrum.
However, these sentiments are not universal. Many people with autism believe there are absolutely no circumstances under which an autistic character should be portrayed by a neurotypical actor. “In a world where we’re trying so hard to create really strong diversity, why is it that they’ve got a neurotypical playing an autistic?” asked Monique Donath, mother to a four-year-old boy with autism. There’s certainly no lack of aspiring actors on the spectrum, which causes many to question why we still see non-autistic actors in these roles. Providing those opportunities could help lessen some of the extreme ableist disparities wesee in our media. Even with the lack of consensus across the autism community, it seems to be agreed upon that actors with autism should be given a fair shot.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to representation. With so many harmful stereotypes and depictions of autistic characters in the media, the avoidance of such tropes must be prioritized. There isn’t a crystal clear answer to this issue at the moment, but when the voices of people with autism are valued, we know we’re heading in the right direction.