Last week Julia the Muppet made her debut on Sesame Street. Julia is autistic. Actually Sesame Street uses the term ‘people with autism’. That makes some people mad because the majority of autistic people allegedly prefer identity first language over person first language (ie, Autistic person over person with autism) I don’t really feel comfortable referring to myself as either so I say I’m on the autism spectrum. I don’t really care how anyone else refers to me as long as its not derogatory though. While I understand that person first vs. identity first language is an important issue to some people on the autism spectrum, it’s never been an important issue to me so I’m not bothered by the fact that Sesame Street uses person first language.
Nothing about the portrayal of Julia really bothers me. I thought it was very well done. I like that Sesame Street chose to make its autistic muppet a girl. There are many more boys diagnosed with autism then there are girls diagnosed with it. When I was in a program for young adults on the autism spectrum I was one of three girls in the program with about twenty guys.
Obviously girls with autism do exist and because boys make up the vast majority of autism diagnoses being a female on the spectrum can be very isolating. Therefore it’s nice to see an autistic female represented in the media so girls on the spectrum can feel less alone and the stereotype of autism as an exclusively male disorder can be challenged.
I recognize myself in Julia. She has some of the same mannerisms I had as a child and continue to have as an adult. Just like me, Julia flaps and jumps. Just like me, Julia has a tendency to brush people off when they first try to interact with her and give them the impression that she does not like them.
Julia is four years old. I watched Sesame Street when I was four. At the time I did not even know what autism was, much less that I might be on the autism spectrum but I did know that I was different from other kids. I would always be asked why I flapped and jumped and I never knew how to answer that question. It was just something I felt compelled to do.
I read an article by someone who has autism that described the first Julia episode of Sesame Street as having a subtle brilliance to it. A blog that reported on that article said that Julia the Muppet has the potential to be groundbreaking. I agree with both of those assessments.
While there are some striking similarities between me and Julia, there are some striking differences between the way Julia is treated on Sesame Street as a result of her differences and the way I have been treated as a result of my differences. As a small child I never got the message that my flapping and jumping were acceptable behaviors and I certainly didn’t get the message that there was anything to appreciate about such behaviors.
I got the message that flapping and jumping were abnormal, unacceptable behaviors. I got the message that I should stop doing it because it’s not what normal people do, it bothers normal people to see it and it would cause normal people to ostracize me. I had parents of my friends forbid those friends from playing with me because they worried my flapping might somehow be contagious. I was luckier than many kids on the autism spectrum in that I was not teased or bullied much by my peers but it did happen on a few occasions. One of the most memorable instances occurred when I was flapping on the playground. A girl came up to me and said in a derisive manner “What’s with the flapping? Are you a bird?” Then she imitated my movements in a mocking, taunting, manner.
On Sesame Street Julia’s peers and mentors are all accepting and accommodating of her differences. Since Julia’s sensory issues make finger painting uncomfortable for her, she is given a paintbrush. When the sound of the sirens cause her distress she is taken to a quiet area and guided in deep breathing exercises. At first Big Bird is upset and confused by Julia’s behaviors but once the others explain Julia’s autism to him he comes to accept and appreciate Julia for who she is.
Sesame Street explains autism in a simple yet masterful manner. When Big Bird asks what autism is, Alan (the adult human in the scene) says that for Julia it means she may not answer you right away. The words ‘for Julia’ are key because they show that autism affects everyone differently.
When Julia is upset by the siren Big Bird says that it wasn’t that loud. Elmo says that for Julia it is. I don’t have the extreme sensitivity to noises or textures that Julia and many people on the autism spectrum do but it sure was nice to see it acknowledged that Julia perceives the world differently than neurotypical people. It was nice to see her perceptions and the distress she experiences as a result of her heightened sensitivities taken seriously and treated as being valid.
The best part of the episode is that it preaches not just tolerance for autism but appreciation for it. Big Bird isn’t urged to be friends with Julia just for the sake of being kind and inclusive. He’s urged to be friends with her because she has positive characteristics that make her a good friend to have. Elmo and Abby describe Julia as being creative and lots of fun. They say that Julia loves to play with her friends, thus shattering the myth that autistic kids do not want friends.
Alan tells Big Bird that Julia does some things he may want to try. Big Bird initially questions why Julia is playing tag while bouncing up and down because he’s never seen tag played like that before but when he joins Julia, Elmo and Abby in a game of boing tag, he discovers it’s a really fun way to play.
Julia is not entirely nonverbal but she doesn’t talk much, which is something Elmo states in a matter of fact, accepting manner. When Big Bird remarks that Julia is not like any friend he’s ever had before, Elmo and Abby say that’s true but none of them are the same either- Elmo’s a monster, Abby’s a fairy and Big Bird’s a bird. Julia’s flapping gets compared to a bird’s but not in a derisive manner like mine was. It’s pointed out as something she and Big Bird have in common. It’s also pointed out that they both like to sing and play. This shows kids that being of a different neurotype than their peers need not be a barrier to friendship. They can still find common ground and as Alan says the way in which they play doesn’t matter. The important thing is that they’re friends playing together.
The episode ends with a song about how “We can all be friends” with lyrics about how our differences make us amazing and are worth praising. This is a huge step in a different and right direction.
Up until recently autism was virtually never spoken of in those terms. It was framed as a devastating disorder that robbed its victims of the chance to have lives that were meaningful,valuable or fulfilling. The symptoms and behaviors associated with autism were regarded as being extremely problematic. The goal was to hide, suppress or eliminate those behaviors. The goal was to make autistic people behave more like neurotypical people. That was seen as the way to best serve autistic people and society in general.
The onus was on the autistic people or their caregivers to change their behavior so that they would be accepted. At best someone who flapped, jumped up and down and didn’t communicate verbally would be viewed with pity and compassion. They would not be viewed with respect or admiration (unless it was for ‘coping with’ or ‘overcoming’ their autism.)
To suggest that autistic people were fine the way they were, that they didn’t need changing, that it was neurotypical people who needed to change their attitude toward autistic people was unheard of. To suggest that there was anything desirable about the way autistic people behaved and that neurotypical people should consider emulating some of their behaviors was unthinkable.
Yet Sesame Street just did all of that. And it could make all the difference.
It would have made a difference to me as a child and it makes a difference to me as an adult. When you’re constantly told that your natural ways of behaving, communicating and interacting with the world are wrong, abnormal and in need of change, it takes a huge toll on your self esteem. I didn’t know any other kids who acted like me and to see a kid in a popular TV show who acted like me and was accepted and admired for who she was would have improved my self esteem.
It may also have improved the way my peers treated me. Instead of seeing me as someone who was weird and confusing, someone they had no frame of reference for, they may have seen me as resembling the beloved character Julia. Instead of seeing my behaviors as something to tease or question me about, they may have accepted and even joined me in them. Instead of assuming that I didn’t like them because I wasn’t initially responsive to them, they may have realized that my brain was just wired differently than theirs and continued to reach out to me in different ways like Big Bird did with Julia. Maybe like Julia and Big Bird we would have come around to each other and developed a friendship.
One of the criticisms I’ve seen hurled at Sesame Street is that they have others speaking for Julia rather than having her speak for herself. First of all, Julia is only four years old. Explaining the details of one’s disability to someone they’ve just met, would be a difficult task for many four-year-olds. It’s not at all unusual for kids that age to prefer to have trusted adults or even peers explain certain circumstances for them. Alan says that Julia likes people to know she has autism so it’s made clear that her wishes and desires are being honored.
Second, while many autistic people do have the ability to verbally express complex thoughts, many do not. Both forms of autism are valid and it would be impossible to have one character encompass all the different forms autism can take. I have never had impaired verbal abilities but while at four I may have had the ability to explain my diagnosis to strangers (if I’d actually had an autism spectrum diagnosis at the time), I would not have been willing to do so. At that point I was so shy I’d been diagnosed with elective mutism.
Another criticism I’ve seen is that the Julia episode is geared towards neurotypical kids, rather than autistic kids themselves. Considering the pro-acceptance message it sends towards neurotypicals, I can’t take issue with that either. It would be nice if in the future some episodes are geared toward autistic kids themselves but if we’re being honest, this is a neurotypical’s world and neurotypicals are the ones who hold much of the power. Therefore if we want to inspire change in the quality of life for those on the spectrum and the way they are treated by society, we have to inspire change in the views and actions of neurotypicals towards those who are autistic.
I’ve watched the Meet Julia clip of Sesame Street about a dozen times and it fills me with joy each time. Kids who watch it could learn a lot from it and change their view of autistic people as a result. There are some adults in my life who could also stand to watch and learn from it but unfortunately I know it wouldn’t change their views. They’ve become set in their views and ways. Yet kids have the capacity to be much more tolerant and accepting than adults, especially if they are taught acceptance and tolerance from an early age.
At one point in the scene Alan explains that Julia flaps her hands in excitement. A lot of people think I flap my hands because I’m excited or am experiencing some other intense emotion but usually I’m just fulfilling a physiological need and it has nothing to do with emotion. Yet after I watched the Meet Julia episode of Sesame Street and thought about what it could mean for the future of those on the spectrum, I did flap my hands in excitement.