Julia is Sesame Street’s first autistic character on the show. She’s a cute little green-eyed four-year old with super bright red hair who likes to sing & loves bubbles, but doesn’t love loud sounds. She’s also an old buddy of Elmo’s. She’s a great addition to the Street gang.
Before I get in to my opinion on the episode, I’m gonna give you a little back story from our history that I thought about immediately after watching the show.
When OJ was almost three we took him to the Jungle Java, an indoor (hellish) play structure in our town. The place is a madhouse. Screeching echoes bounce off offensively colored walls, and smells of burnt coffee abound. A wonderland for children, apparently.
My husband and I were super stoked that OJ was finally enjoying this stupid place instead of attempting to run for the hills upon arrival. Being 7 months pregnant with OJ’s little brother, I only planned on kicking up my heels and smooshing gummy bears into my fat cheeks. And we would watch OJ do his thing; jumping, climbing, general sensory-motor happiness.
He was overstimulated within a half hour. I could tell. He was covering his ears and upping his hand flapping (a self stimulation that comforts him).
Then I spotted a small crew of 5yr old-ish boys. I wondered how (or if) OJ would interact with them. My question was answered swiftly when I saw one of them pointing at OJ, and then I heard something like “Look! LOOK at what he’s doing. HAHAHA.” They were referring to his self soothing techniques.
“Hey kid, what are you DOing?” I hear one of them say as I’m now getting up out of my seat to break this damn thing up. OJ was tapping his chest wildly and grinning a maniacal grin at them. Clearly his form of communication went right over the kids’ heads because the next thing I heard was:
“Weird. Let’s go over there, guys.”
Thank friggin GOD, my sweet little boy didn’t seem to be bothered by this gross interaction or feel the judgment in the exchange. But I did. My heart broke into a million pieces for him while he merrily galloped away to the monkey bridge.
So here we are at Julia, a new muppet on Sesame Street who is autistic. Young kids (like those boys at the Jungle Java) get to see autism on the show for the first time! Sesame Street’s first autistic character debuted on March 19th! How cool, right!? You can watch the episode here: http://www.sesamestreet.org/videos?vid=23368
There are some major pluses and a few minuses I see with the development and portrayal. Below are my LOVEs and MEHs about the episode, loves first.
Julia! YAY! LOVE it.
• FINALLY A CHARACTER ON A KIDS SHOW, YOU GUYS!!! And she’s on Sesame Street which has a long history of being an effective tool for kiddos, socially and educationally. That itself is major goodness.
- We have a character to *actually talk* about with kids. We need a reference point, and Julia is a pretty darn good one I’d say. And she’s a girl, which I love.
- With Julia out there now, we can talk about different ways of communicating with peers and friends. Speech is just ONE way we communicate; there are so many more ways. How can we tune in to our friends to see what they want/need from us? We can talk about senses and how some kids have ears that hear louder or softer, and how that could affect how you perceive your surroundings.
• The representation on Sesame Street is one of acceptance… huge. It was cool to see that Elmo and Abby already know Julia (while we, the viewer, meet her for the first time). At first I all prepped to be annoyed by the ‘helping’ nature of the friendship between Abby and Julia when Abby helps Julia pop the bubbles Julia can’t reach. But then I thought to myself, ummm don’t friends help each other? Plus, Julia seemed to appreciate the help and Abby seemed to kind of know what Julia wanted by tuning in to Julia’s body language. NOT her speech. Love it.
• Positive portrayals of autism in the media, when racked up on more and more positive portrayals, have the potential to cut bullying. I mean, right? Maybe we’d have less “Jungle Java Incidents”, just saying.
This is a great little blurb from The Atlantic:
“By explaining the differences and presenting the commonalities, one goal of this project is to reduce the stigmas associated with autism that often lead to bullying. One survey found that 63 percent of autistic children have been bullied, and experts hope that Sesame Street’s efforts to foster tolerance and acceptance with preschool children will eventually decrease bullying among older children. “If we can start early and educate kids about differences, they’ll be more understanding as they get older,” said Debra Ziegler, a director at the Council for Exceptional Children. The stigma of autism is also felt by parents when their autistic children exhibit unusual behaviors in public.” https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/11/julia-the-autistic-muppet-game-changer/414277/
• Some of the language around this character rubs me the wrong way:
- Autism is seen at as an accompanying ‘issue’ for Julia, and not a part of her identity that we can celebrate and love. That part is… meh, not great.
- “Julia is a muppet with autism.” And; “Julia, a muppet affected by autism”. Maybe it’s just a personal preference but we use Identity First Language in our house (as he ages and has the language to express his tastes, and wants to use Person First Language, we’ll honor it of course).
- Autism can be seriously disabling but using pathologizing language, particularly around other children, could lead to non-inclusion and non-acceptance. In my humble opinion.
That’s really it for my MEHs. I’m not chomping at the bit to lead this Julia girl to the muppet slaughterhouse. Because if we do that, we could make the process of bringing an autistic character into the mainstream, one that will be remembered as a pain in the ass for ‘the rest of them’. We could end up with absolutely NO representation. Or worse… more stereotypes.
On Sesame Street, there are lots of muppets to illustrate the fact that neurotypical people have so many different aspects to their personality. But Julia is just one character with special needs, and there’s a saying in the autism community; “if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met… ONE autistic individual”. While there may not be a perfect representation of autism as of now, it is such a wide spectrum that it would be crazy hard to cover all it all. So we can’t expect every possible aspect to be covered in one character in one episode.
The point was to introduce autism to the show and help kids learn how to interact with a peer on the spectrum. The message was supposed to be one of acceptance and inclusion and I think that was delivered.
FIRST and foremost, parents need to make an effort to proactively teach acceptance. Not just awareness. Sesame Street is just a supporting tool. Were those boys at Jungle Java taught about accepting those with differences? I don’t know. But I do know that we reduce the chances of those kinds of instances where kids are labeled and judged as “weird” when we TEACH acceptance and awareness.
What did you think of the episode? Do you think they did a nice job with the character? Did they miss the boat?