This month is Autism Awareness Month. But people on the spectrum are acutely aware that "awareness" isn’t enough. “Awareness” can carry a negative connotation, giving the impression that autism is like cancer — something to watch out for or pity. But autism isn’t a disease with a cure waiting to be found — it’s an atypical wiring of the brain. A world built for neurotypical people can be difficult for a person with autism to navigate, presenting various sensory, social, intellectual, and emotional challenges. Because of this, it is appropriate to call autism a disability. But people with autism can and do bless the world with unique perspectives and gifts.
In a world desperate for this understanding of autism, there is thankfully a place where sure everyone is included and valued for her or his unique gifts.
This place is Sesame Street.
Sesame Street may not be the “real world,” but its wisdom, diffused through the magic of public television, makes the real world a kinder place. This was certainly the case last Monday when Sesame Street debuted its first awesomely autistic Muppet, Julia.
Through Julia, Sesame Street is helping to transform our world not only by raising autism awareness, but moreover by promoting autism appreciation.
Julia is a bright-eyed, fiery-haired Muppet. We first encounter her with Elmo and Abby Caddaby as they paint pictures under the supervision of Alan, the friendly human owner of Sesame Street’s Hooper’s Store. While Abby and Elmo finger paint, Julia shudders at the thought of getting her hands messy, opting for a paintbrush instead. This sensitivity to textures is the first of several traits she displays that are common, but by no means universal, among autistic individuals. She also flaps her hands, bounces when excited, uses few words, repeats the words of others, takes time answering questions and becomes anxious and upset over the loud noise of a siren — other traits that may be common for autistic individuals
Although Julia’s atypical communication style and high sensitivity levels may make life a little more difficult for her, she also displays unique gifts. Her painting is beautiful and highly detailed and her level of excitement when she is happy indicates that she relishes the joys of life. Those who know someone on the spectrum may recognize some or all of these traits. Autism can present itself in a variety of ways and Sesame Street takes care to emphasize that this is what autism looks likefor Julia. After all, as Dr. Stephen Shore says, “When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
The purpose of the episode is not merely to introduce an autistic character, but to show how people with differing abilities can become friends. Sesame Street gently demonstrates the patience and empathy that make up the building blocks of any healthy relationship. It deftly navigates the misimpressions neurotypical children might have when they encounter an autistic person for the first time and shows that a little understanding goes a long way toward making a lifelong friend. When Big Bird first encounters Julia, he mistakes her unresponsiveness to him as a personal dismissal. He must learn that she takes her time answering, particularly when she’s deep in concentration on another activity. While he notices that she does things differently, he soon comes to realize that Julia’s way to play can be a lot of fun.
I don’t think I could explain the subtle details and successes of this episode any better than Dylan Matthews — a blogger who is himself on the spectrum — did in his review for Vox. Suffice it to say that not only will autistic children benefit from such positive representation in media, and not only will neurotypical children learn a lot from this episode, but a culture of empathy is taking root on Sesame Street and branching out into the wider world.
I am excited and hopeful for this better world that Sesame Street is helping to create by listening to people with autism and taking their stories and desires to mind in their portrayal of Julia. We desperately need neurodiverse perspectives because we live in a world saturated with ableism. As “The Art of Autism” blogger Leanne Libas says, “the biggest problems people with autism face are misunderstandings and stigmata from society.”
From overt bullying, subtle condescension, to well-intentioned but ultimately detrimental attempts to “normalize,” the neurotypical community often relates to people on the autism spectrum in a deliberately or inadvertently harmful manner.
As mimetic theory teaches us, our relationships are integral to our humanity. When relationships are characterized by misunderstanding, rejection, or hostility, no one involved can live into the fullness of his or her unique humanity. Society as a whole suffers when different people are marginalized and the beauty of their perspectives, talents, and personalities are shunned. None of us can live into our full potential until all of us can. None of us yet know how much more beautiful, compassionate, joyful, and magnificent the world will be when people on the autism spectrum are appreciated for who they are. In their celebration of neurodiversity and friendship, Sesame Street is shining a light on our journey of discovery.