Sesame Street and Autism

Did you watch “Sesame Street” when you were young? Do you still watch “Sesame Street”? Unfortunately, I can’t answer “yes” to either of those questions my family has always been more of an “Arthur” family. We still watch it in one big group, actually, ranging in age from my 11-year-old sister to my 50-year-old parents. We all enjoy it.

“Sesame Street,” though. Recently, it’s been making the news for a brand new initiative that has been taken: Sesame Street and Autism. While she has yet to appear on the actual show, Sesame Street has created a new character named Julia, who is autistic and appears in a new book that is available online for free. She loves swinging and playing with Elmo; she’s also very good at singing and remembering all of the lyrics. She flaps her hands when she’s excited. She doesn’t like loud noises, or talking while she’s swinging, or making eye contact. Sometimes, people have to wait awhile for her to respond to what they’re saying to her. Julia is an autistic little girl, and she is a full-fledged character.

Sesame Street has garnered a lot of praise for making the character female. For years, psychologists diagnosed autistic children by a standard set of behaviors, and more males were diagnosed than females, at a four to one ratio. Recent studies and reports from the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) actually show that many girls display their autistic behaviors differently and are often diagnosed later on in life, if at all. As a result, making the Sesame Street character female increases awareness for female autistic children. People also appreciate that Sesame Street is reaching out to autistic people to create informative videos to educate non-autistic children. Given that one in five autistic children are bullied, according to IAN, it is very much an act of normalizing autism and explaining it in an effort to help autistic children, well, not get bullied.

Reactions are mixed, though, as autistic adults criticize the way that it’s aimed at non-autistic children. Elmo explains why Julia does the things that she does she doesn’t speak up for herself. In the videos about autistic children, they don’t present themselves or get to talk to the camera. Furthermore, only a little bit of their additional material created for this initiative (a set of cards with daily tasks on them for children) is something that would help autistic children, instead of the “explaining things to non-autistic kids” approach they’re going for right now. Their work with Autism Speaks an organization that many autistic people condemn for treating autism as a disease to be cured further cements that.

Okay, so “Sesame Street” tried an autistic character, and they need to work on her. We’re college students. Most of us aren’t reading or watching “Sesame Street.” Why does that matter to us? Why should we care?

Some of us are autistic, for one. For those of us who aren’t: in a few years at most, we’re venturing out away from campus. Some of us may be writing, may be filming, may be creating media. Isn’t this important? We don’t want to fall into these trip-ups. Furthermore, even learning about the mistakes that “Sesame Street” made can help us learn about autism. People around us are autistic you, reading this article, may be autistic. Shouldn’t you — shouldn’t autistic people — get the best representation that they can? Especially children who will be delighted to see people like them in the media they’re consuming?

This is important. Even here, on a college campus. We don’t live in a vacuum here, and we need to realize that.

You can read Julia’s storybook here: