Autism in Sesame Street

IMPORTANT NOTE: While I do work in autism support, I am by no means an authoritative voice on autism. I can only comment from my experiences, and I will be linking to pieces written by people on the autism spectrum. I encourage you to look for more.

So this week, Sesame Street saw the debut of Julia, a character with autism who has existed in the Sesame Street Extended World (yes, it exists, and it’s awesome) for a while, but this week was her official on-screen debut.

And surprisingly, for such a sensitive topic, Sesame Street seem to have done a very good job of it.

For a start, rather than focussing on how Julia should change to fit in with the other characters in the street, they instead explain how Julia may do things differently, but some of these things are things the other characters might want to do too. For example, when Abby Cadabby says that Julia jumping in excitement is like “a rubber ball, boing boing boing!”, Julia loves this, and puts it into the game of tag they’re playing, creating “Boing tag”. Rather than the other characters complaining that this is ruining their game, they all join in, and comment about how it is a really fun way to play.

For kids who are constantly put into mainstream school situations, play groups and social events where they are expected to change and adapt to fit the “neurotypical” way of doing whatever, this is going to make such a difference. They will be able to see someone just like them, who is being accepted and loved, and that’s such an important message.

Another huge moment in this introduction is when Alan, who is Julia’s adult support, is talking to Big Bird about how Julia ignoring him isn’t her not liking him, more that she sometimes takes a while to talk to people. Big Bird confuses this with Julia being shy, and Alan corrects him by saying it’s because Julia has autism, and more importantly, that Julia likes people knowing this. Though she hasn’t said it herself, and judging by her speech patterns she might not be able to outright say this herself, but it gives Julia some agency here. By those around her knowing, she isn’t treated as being rude, or silly, but as someone who interacts with the world differently.

The best bit however, is when Big Bird asks what autism is, and Alan replies “Well, for Julia…”.

Autistic people being treated as individuals at different points on the spectrum so casually in a show for kids is INCREDIBLE.

So often I have people talk about my work as though I deal with the same things every day, that all my service users are exactly like that one autistic kid they vaguely saw at school (but never gave the time of day because they were weird), and how it must be so easy once I’d done the job for a couple of months. I work with 4 guys on a regular basis, and they are all so individual. Yes two of them are very good friends and often do things together, but they are not the same.

Acknowledging this in mainstream media, because Sesame Street is mainstream media, is a huge step forward for autism representation.

Here’s hoping they keep up the good work, and are able to expand their “See Amazing in All Children” initiative to include children from more parts of the disability and personality spectrums.

Also this week (maybe last week, I didn’t actually pay attention to the release date), the new Power Rangers movie came out, which also includes an autistic character. I haven’t seen it yet, and have heard mixed things, so can’t really comment. However, this is written by someone way more informed than me. I will come back to this as more becomes available.

Kerry Magro, autism advocate

 

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