On Monday, ‘Sesame Street’ introduced, Julia, a little girl Muppet with autism and in doing so continued a long tradition of inclusiveness.
While breaking new ground isn’t anything new for ‘Sesame Street’, this is the first time the show struck a nerve with me. Two months ago, my son, Charles was diagnosed with autism. What stood out about the episode is that it didn’t seek to answer what autism was. However, it did attempt to eliminate any stigma associated with the diagnosis.
In this episode, we see Alan (Alan Muraoka) supervising Elmo, Abby, and Julia as they all try finger painting. Big Bird happens to walk up and asks what they are doing. He gets typical responses from his buddies (Elmo and Abby) but nothing out Julia. She just keeps finger painting completely ignoring his overtures of friendship. Big Bird immediately thinks that she is either shy or just doesn’t like him. Alan explains there’s much more to Julia than whether or not she’s shy or not and that she, in fact, has autism.
The writers didn’t attempt to project any aspect of autism as being remotely simple. At one point in the episode, Big Bird asks Alan about autism and he’s initially stymied by the question. His response seemed all too real as there are times it’s hard to articulate what autism is. However, Alan’s eventual response to Big Bird’s question was perfect. He explained that Julia just handles things in a different way. Just phrasing things in that matter promotes a message of inclusion and positivity.
The episode didn’t just paint a rosy perception of autism. For example, many children with Autism have sensory issues and don’t like how things feel or different sounds. In this episode we see Julia struggling with using finger paints because she doesn’t like how they feel on her hand. She’s able to work around it by using a long paint brush. We also witness her being overwhelmed when the police siren goes off because of a sensitivity to sound. The other muppets are puzzled by this and Julia has to go to her happy place to calm down and feel better.
Julia’s speech patterns and mannerisms were extremely accurate as well. Julia repeated phrases multiple times and would move her arms up and down repeatedly when she was excited.
There is a scene where Big Bird tells Elmo and Abby that he’s never had a friend that was different like Julia. Elmo and Abby respond on how they are all different, and they’ve managed to stay friends. Such a powerful moment! It shows children that all kids are different, not just children with autism.
This episode didn’t seek to define children with autism by their diagnosis but by their actions. While Julia didn’t finger paint in the same manner that the other kids did, when she was done, she had wonderfully drawn a picture of her favorite stuffed Bunny. It’s what we do that makes us amazing! What a great message for everyone.