“You’re too difficult to manage.”
That’s what my then-manager said to me in a one-on-one. Alarmed, I asked if she could give me some examples. I had been with this company for almost seven years, and none of my previous managers had ever said anything like this to me. Until now, all of my reviews had been overwhelmingly positive.
“You just are,” she replied, before telling me that her manager was refusing to entertain the idea of my promotion. Her boss, it was revealed later, had a deep prejudice against people with autism like me.
I was reminded of this incident last week, when musician Sia released a trailer for her upcoming movie, “Music,” which she says is based on a close friend. Many actors and activists quickly pointed out that she could have used it as an opportunity to cast an autistic actor. Instead, Sia chose to cast Maddie Ziegler, a non-autistic actor.
Her response to the criticism was to double down, tweeting that she felt “fury” because people were judging her film without having watched the whole movie. This invalidates the crux of our concern — that a film about an autistic person failed to put us at the center.
She tried to position this movie as being something positive for the autistic community. But these are the facts: The lead character is played by a neurotypical actor, there were just two autistic people consulted, and the film was supported by an organization that is controversial in the autism community. What infuriated the community, however, was Sia’s response that she didn’t use an autistic actress because it wasn’t “kind.”
Numerous autistic actors replied that they could have easily handled the role. Sia insisted it was “cruel” — but who is she to determine what is too stressful for an entire group of people whose interests and behaviors are so diverse? A legion of Sia fans came to her defense, affirming the negative stereotypes of autism that are too often portrayed in media.
If a famous recording artist thinks casting an autistic actor in an autistic role about autism isn’t possible, what does that say to other employers?
In my own case, the manager who looked over me for a promotion had very few interactions with me, but had formed the opinion that I was difficult. People with autism fight this prejudice every day in every aspect of life. Popular media has portrayed people on the autism spectrum as prone to angry or violent outbursts, withdrawn, argumentative and solitary. While this may describe some people on the autism spectrum, these adjectives could be used to describe anyone. But my boss’s boss could only see the stereotype. So could Sia.
People with autism struggle to become employed, to retain employment and, subsequently, to live independent lives. It’s not because we don’t have the ability to do so; it’s because we’re not even given the chance. Employers often balk at any sort of deviation from the typical: They pass over us even if we are the most qualified because of “cultural fit,” and they assume all of us are like the autistic people they see in the media.
I’m one of the fortunate people who works for a company that sees neurodiversity as a strength. They genuinely value my knowledge and insight. But I am in the minority. I have family members and friends on the spectrum who struggle to even be given the opportunity to work at lower-paying jobs.
Discrimination and unconscious bias against people with disabilities is so deep, so accepted, that even people who claim to be allies are often simply reaffirming negative stereotypes.
What many fail to see is that this kind of decision directly hurts us and our efforts to destigmatize a condition we acquired before birth. It encourages hateful rhetoric and misinformation. It makes it okay for employers to pass us over for opportunities. They believe — as Sia does — that no matter how hard we work, no matter how much evidence we can show to the contrary, we can’t breach that wall of unconscious bias.