NOTE: I've been a Sesame Street fan since I watched the first episode in 1969. My children adored the program until it left PBS to move to HBO for first run episodes. We don't have HBO and it was time to say goodbye when the Surgeon General teamed up with Elmo to promote vaccinations. Preschoolers pick their noses, not their friends. I can promise the parents who think that Sesame Street will make a long term difference that it will not - and I'm sorry to say that. By middle school the gap is a chasm, by high school it's a canyon and after high school, it's another continent. At least for those with moderate to severe autism like my own girls. Boys are affected 4:1 over girls, so I don't understand the female muppet. I do know that Sesame Street has struggled to have female characters - Abby Cadabby was supposed to add to Zoe and Rosita. I hope Julia does indeed help start a conversation, although I'm afraid it will go like this, "Gee, that doesn't look anything like what Chase at school has, Mom...." Kim
By Anne Dachel
Julia is a Sesame Street character with autism. Big Bird and the other characters on the show are learning how to understand her. Julia is meant to teach children how to get along with someone with the disorder. Julia is proof that autism will never be a crisis for this country. Somehow we're going to have adjust to a significant population that has recognizable symptoms and special needs. From the tone of the discussion on 60 Minutes, we understand that having a child with autism is now normal and acceptable. (The Pfizer ad on this video is a not-to-subtle reminder that pharmaceutical is a controlling influence over what 60 Minutes will cover.) View video here.
Christine Ferraro: I think the big discussion right at the start was, “How do we do this? How do we talk about autism?”
Christine Ferraro has been a writer at Sesame Street for 25 years, during which time the frequency of autism diagnoses has multiplied.
Lesley Stahl: The chances of a little kid two, three, four years old having some kind of a relationship with another kid with autism is pretty high.
Christine Ferraro: Exactly. Especially once they hit school age, because they’ll be in their classrooms.
Abby: Julia, you’re so creative!
Julia: [laughs and flaps]
But how to portray autism?
Christine Ferraro: It’s tricky because autism is not one thing, because it is different for every single person who has autism. There is an expression that goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
“Sesame Street” has always based its characters and content on extensive research. They regularly bring in educators and child psychologists. In the case of Julia, they also worked with autism organizations to decide which characteristics she should have and how best to normalize autism for all children.
And of course every Muppet needs a puppeteer. But not every puppeteer has the connection Stacey Gordon does to the role. Gordon is the mother of a son with autism. She traveled all the way from Phoenix to audition for the part.
Lesley Stahl: The idea that there will be a child with autism on Sesame Street—
Stacey Gordon: Yeah.
Lesley Stahl: Tell me what that means to you.
Stacey Gordon: It means that our kids are important enough to be seen in society. Having Julia on the show and seeing all of the characters treat her with compassion—
Lesley Stahl: And like her.
Stacey Gordon: And like her.
Lesley Stahl: That’s big.
Stacey Gordon: Yeah, it’s huge.
The truth is, America’s children HAVE TO BE EDUCATED ABOUT AUTISM. Our schools are filled with students on the spectrum. Children today are checked for the signs of autism at well-baby check-ups by their pediatricians. What Leslie Stahl, 60 Minutes, and Sesame Street are doing here is to call for inclusion and acceptance of those with a disorder that wasn’t even around fifty years ago when Sesame Street first aired.
While I agreed that this a positive thing for understanding a disability that has become a fact of life for America’s children, no one can explain why we are doing this.
Stahl notes that “the frequency of autism diagnoses has multiplied” over the last twenty-five years, without telling viewers what the staggering rate really is. If the number of autism diagnoses has risen, does that mean more children actually have the disorder, or are they just diagnosing it more often?
This is clearly a new phenomenon. We’re all going to have to learn to live with autism everywhere. Right now, it’s children and young adults that make up people on the spectrum. Stories about autism training for teachers, doctors, air line personnel, EMTs, librarians and police are regularly in local news coverage across the U.S. Autism-friendly movies and “Sensitive Santas” are signs of the changes we have to make because we have no choice.
Every April we make a worldwide effort, complete with blue lights, walks, and fundraisers, to convince ourselves that nothing is wrong with having two percent of our children with a disorder that doesn’t exist in a comparable rate in middle aged and elderly adults.
While I sincerely hope that children do learn to understand and accept those among them with autism, I worry about the image of autism shown on Sesame. Julia is a sweet little girl with milder symptoms of autism. She can interact with others and she looks like a typical child. It’s easy to think that autism isn’t really a serious disability. It’s easy to believe that kids have always been like this, we just didn’t call it autism.
The type of autism that isn’t included here is the severe kind where kids have violent meltdowns, seizures, wear helmets, and can’t relate to their environment. We won’t be seeing those who are non-verbal, still wearing diapers when they head off to school, and in need of constant watching because they could wander into traffic. That side of autism won’t be seen on Sesame Street, and those children will be even more marginalized and ignored.
Footnote: We have already seen Sesame Street and the Surgeon General (2015) using Elmo to promote vaccines to four year olds. http://www.ageofautism.com/2015/04/dachel-media-update-the-neurologist-is-a-person-in-your-neighborhood-elmo-hawks-vaccines.html How fitting that this same show should be calling for acceptance for the vaccine-injured generation.