LISTEN

On December 24, 2020, the musician Sia publicly offered to fund CommunicationFIRST to make an introductory short to her new movie MUSIC. The short was intended to help humanize and spread awareness about real nonspeaking autistic people, who were left out of MUSIC, despite being the subject of the movie. After a team of nonspeaking and autistic people brought together by CommunicationFIRST in January 2021 previewed MUSIC and provided feedback and recommendations to Sia on how to improve it, they received no response from her team. In early February 2021, CommunicationFIRST decided to move forward to produce a self-funded short by and with real nonspeaking autistic people, and to launch it on February 12, 2021, the MUSIC US release date.

The film LISTEN is the result.

Shorter Versions

Audio-Described Versions

Translated Versions

Transcripts

      • English (PDF)
      • Spanish (PDF)
      • Brazilian Portuguese (PDF)
      • French (PDF)
      • German (PDF)
      • Greek (PDF)
      • Italian (PDF)

LISTEN to Us Toolkit

CommunicationFIRST, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, and the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint created this LISTEN to Us resource toolkit for members of the media and general public with information and resources on:

      • The short LISTEN: A short film made by and with nonspeaking autistic people
      • Some ways to support nonspeaking autistic people
      • A style guide for writing and talking about nonspeaking autistic people
      • Points of contact to arrange media interviews with autistic people and victims of restraint
      • Resources to learn more about the lived experiences of nonspeaking autistic people
      • Disability representation in the media
      • Movies that have featured or involved nonspeaking autistic people in their production
      • Augmentative and alternative communication
      • Meltdowns
      • How to support someone having a meltdown
      • Trauma-informed practices
      • Restraint

Press Releases

LISTEN in the News

      • BBC Radio (Mark Kermode & Simon Mayo), February 26, 2021
        • (starting at 2:25, video not captioned) ("It's worth looking up the whole film. It's just 5 minutes long and it's from CommunicationFIRST. It's called LISTEN. We heard from Bobby Shabangu and Rhema Russell.... It's only five minutes long and it's really, really worth checking out.... 'People talk about us a lot, but they're not listening. People write about us a lot, but they don't listen to us.' ... It's impossible to hear that and not think, that is, yeah absolutely, and that's exactly what should be done.")
      • The Independent (Helen Brown), February 25, 2021
        • ("[T]hey encourage people to watch a short film called LISTEN made by non-profit organisation CommunicationFirst and free to stream online. It shows mostly non-speaking autistic people explaining why representation matters, and why society should not underestimate the abilities of autistic people. ... In LISTEN, contributor Rhema Russell explains: 'Just because I cannot speak does not mean I don’t hear. I hear everything people say to me or about me. I may not show understanding in my face, but I know and understand. Not a word said escapes my so strong ears.' Another contributor, Damon Kirsebom, adds: 'To anyone who wishes to represent non-speaking people, I ask that you communicate with us directly. Misrepresentation of non-speaking people leaves us more vulnerable to abuse.' American activist Cal Montgomery, meanwhile, describes the agony of being restrained. 'Every escalation was blamed 100 per cent on me, no matter if they had just done something illegal to me, cornered me, taunted me, taken something I needed, whatever,' he says. 'Your body is tensing up. Your breathing tightens up. Your fists want to clench. You can feel your body betraying you. You can fight or fold. It’s up to you. You are hitting the ground either way. You are face down on the floor. You may relax, you may beg, you may play dead. None of it works... It is a fight with a predetermined winner, who isn’t you.' As the film’s final contributor, Hari Srinivasan, concludes: 'If you have a voice, you can use it to help bring dignity back for the members of the more marginalised autistics.' He says that we need to change the narrative around non-speaking autistics and improve visibility in society – and pop culture – so that more actors who might better fill a role like Music in Sia’s film can come to the fore and be seen, and I agree. It’s only those tired old stereotypes that deserve to be crushed.")
      • TIME Magazine (Sarah Kurchak), February 25, 2021
        • ("In the interest of fairness, I did watch Music for the sake of this piece. I won’t evaluate it as representation, as I believe that non-speaking autistic people should be leading that conversation. (For more on the topic, I recommend starting with the short film produced by CommunicationFIRST and the essays by Mickayla and Hari Srinivasan.)")
      • Newsweek (Jon Jackson), February 22, 2021
        • ("She also encouraged people to watch a short film called "LISTEN" made by CommunicationFirst. This nonprofit organization claims on its website that Sia contacted the group to collaborate on a video to use for Music, but that she cut off contact following negative feedback from the CommunicationFirst team. Jensen said "LISTEN" shows autistic people talking about why representation matters, and why society should not underestimate the abilities of autistic people.")
      • Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (Gloria Macarenko), February 18, 2021
        • (non-transcripted radio clip) ("One of the big organizations, I believe they are called CommunicationFIRST, ... and they were completely ignored [by Sia]. ... That type of false promise is so damaging for trust in terms of a disability community or a minority community against a majority voice that is trying to talk over us." "As autistic AAC users like Cal Mongtomery, Damon Kirsebom, and Hari Srinivasan said in the film LISTEN, which was made in response to Sia's film, 'Ask nonspeaking autistics. Listen to nonspeaking autistics.'")

Reactions to MUSIC from Nonspeaking Autistic People

Read essays and reviews about the film MUSIC written by nonspeaking autistic people:

CommunicationFIRST organized a team of autistic and nonspeaking people to preview Sia’s movie MUSIC in late January 2021, two weeks before it was released in the United States. The people who agreed to preview the film had to promise not to speak publicly about it until February 12, 2021, when it was released to the general public. CommunicationFIRST has compiled a selection of the reactions the nonspeaking members of the preview team had after watching MUSIC and we share them here:

ON THE PORTRAYAL OF NONSPEAKING AUTISTICS

              • “My reaction is that this movie will cause a lot of people to treat autistics like they do already: as one-dimension personalities that have nothing to contribute and only consume all your money, but somehow you’ll find out how strong you are for loving them.”
              • “The heart of what’s wrong with this movie: an absolute lack of reality about the whole way in which autistic people are treated and portrayed in this movie. We don’t have the babysitter/landlord who helps out for free, or the neighbor who can drop by to braid one’s hair because a family member can’t figure it out. We don’t suddenly start singing a song at a wedding because of being low-speaking and therefore inspiring. We don’t have the luxury of helping others become better people by being burdens they have to care for for the rest of their life. This movie is clearly not written for autistic people, but made for their caregivers to feel better about themselves.”
              • “The misunderstanding and misrepresentation of nonspeaking autistics was so profound that the movie will cause people to think that this ‘acceptance’ is all that is needed, and they will not be inspired to ensure communication access or listening to autistic people.”
              • “Definitely an autistic actress should have been casted as the lead for that part. I don’t see a reason why an able bodied actress needed to play that part. … Basically there should have be[en] autistic writers assisting Sia creating this movie.”
              • “The film had no goal of demonstrating her intelligence, just her lovability. That’s not uncommon. Does get old. The film was about how she brought others together NOT about her. Like most disabled people in the new testament—they are there to be cured to prove someone else’s divinity.”

ON COMMUNICATION

      • “Music didn’t seem to have access to her AAC device at all times or at least I did not notice it.
      • “When used, the use of AAC was quite infantilized with only a few phrases seemingly programmed.”
      • “I have worked tirelessly on my AAC skills. So, I found how they showcased her use of an AAC device to be cliche ignorant information about the potential communication capabilities of autistic nonspeakers. This needs to change.”
      • “Ebo was sitting with Music and seemingly practicing the use of her AAC with her—however, he was not necessarily acknowledging her communication. When she said she was sad, he made her say she was happy.”

ON RESTRAINT

              • “Also the description of bodily restraint as the only way to control the main character is extremely problematic and should be called out for its ableist spreading of misinformation.” 
              • “Although the restraint scenes were troubling, I think what adds to the danger is how ‘mild’ and quickly resolved things were using the restraint. This almost seemed like a hard but very helpful solution to calm Music. I believe this has the potential to bring more abuse and harm to autistic people being framed as it was in the movie.”
              • “The restraint scenes while brief are so uncalled for and go against everything professionals are trained not to do. The one supporting character who I wanted to like is killed and his death was not addressed in a proper way.”
              • “While Zu was concerned about her getting hurt initially, there were multiple scenes where restraint was encouraged and used.”

GOOD ELEMENTS

              • “I enjoyed the music and the sense of community supporting Music. I believe one of the themes was to see one another's humanity and value, which I think was good.”
              • “Ebo said that Music knows what she wants—It is good that they say that.”
              • “Ebo explained Music's headphones to Zu and talked about why they are necessary.”
              • “Ebo explained that Music can understand everything that is said.”
              • “Near the end of the movie, Zu took Music to a residential setting. Music was clear in her desire to not live there and her sister followed her want.”

OTHER

      • “What an interesting movie—I'm quite confused as to the purpose. In my opinion, there is much contradiction in the message(s), which would cause overall harm to us.”

OTHER DISTURBING ELEMENTS

              • “When Zu took Music to a facility. I think this is a disturbing thing no matter what for autistics who need a lot of support. In the end, her sister ran out of there with Music horrified she almost ‘gave her away to strangers.’”
              • “Zu talks about sending Music away throughout the film (i.e. Jokes about sending her to a “people pound”).”
              • “There is a graphic scene of domestic violence and murder that is treated very lightly. It felt completely out of place in the story.”
              • “Which leads to the totally racist stereotyping of Asians. After Felix is killed it jumps to one of the dream sequences and it was as racist as you can get with characters riding the rickshaw, purposely making facial expressions to squint the eyes and do the early 20th century stereotype antics of Asians ... plus that sequence is NOT going to be ok visually—the wallpaper and outfits (all the same) are sensory overload.”

The Making of LISTEN

Read the story of how a multinational, nearly 100% autistic team made a film by, with, and about nonspeaking autistic people in less than 10 days (coming soon!)