By Kim Rossi
When Sesame Street launched in 1969, I was a 5 year old first grader whose teacher dragged the TV on the tall trolley into our classroom so we could all watch this groundbreaking new program. From that day on, I adored Sesame Street for 5 decades. Grover was Mia's first word.
I did not stop watching, or adoring, Sesame Street until they introduced Julia, a character with autism that never, ever struck the right chord with me. While appreciating the effort of introducing a character with autism, the fact that it was a female Muppet never sat right, since autism affects boys far more than girls. Sesame Street has been criticized over the decades for its lack of female characters. The female Muppets like Prairie Dawn and Rosita were ancillary and not main characters. Happy, dancing Zoe became Elmo's friend and was a more visible female presence. Abby Cadabby, a relative newcomer, added little to the program in my opinion. She made magic mistakes and often her Mom had to fix them for her. Hardly a strong role model for girls. And Julia? Introduced in May of 2017, Julia seemed forced, her gender chosen to fill a gap.
Julia's role was to "destigmatize" autism and reduce isolation among autistic children. A fine goal. Except.....
The push to accept autism as a "difference" by a cult-like social movement called "neurodiversity" and an organization called ASAN was involved in developing Julia's character. She was a watered down, autism-like character. Now, we know fully well that if you've met one person with autism, you've met just that - ONE person with autism. But the diagnosis has a list of behavioral criteria that runs true across the gamut of severity. Julia was allowed to show the tip of the autism iceberg. She did not make full eye contact. She did not always seem to be listening. She did not quickly engage with the other characters. All good. But, how would it ever have been possible for a children's TV show, that is supposed to bring joy and happiness to preschoolers, have shown the more serious side of autism? Julia could speak, hardly indicative of autism for many of our families. Sesame Street, now owned by HBO, is edutainment. When it launched, it taught letters and numbers to inner city children who did not have access to preschool. Today, kids from all walks of life and social strata are using smart phone apps and watching educational TV 24 hours a day on channels like Nick Jr. Sesame Street changed with the times, which I always admired. In my home, after my divorce, I discovered Mia searching and listening to a song about parents who live in "different trees". It was a song about divorce. She also searched segments about families, as her own family changed.
ASAN is displeased with an Autism Speaks PSA that featured Julia and that tackled some of the tough issues of autism. The PSA doesn't match the narrative of autism being a gifty, nifty difference. They will only approve of a "Sunny day, sweeping the reality of autism away," to borrow from the iconic Sesame Street song. The PSA had the audacity to use the word, "fight," in it. Oh my stars!! You bet we fight autism - every single day. And no one fights it more than our affected children. There isn't another diagnosis in the world for which to advocate for cure, treatment or improvement is considered verboten. And so ASAN bailed. I'm delighted. Now maybe the leaders at Sesame Street will understand that they were duped by ASAN and can educate themselves by reading a book brought to you by the letters D,E,N,I,A and L. Denial, by Mark Blaxill and Dan Olmsted.
Kim Rossi is Managing Editor for Age of Autism.