April 7, 2017
In “Meet Julia,” an episode of “Sesame Street” that will air April 10 on PBS and HBO, Elmo and Abby Cadabby introduce Big Bird to Julia, a new muppet character with autism.
Big Bird says, “Hi, Julia, I’m Big Bird. Nice to meet you.”
But Julia continues painting without making eye contact or responding to Big Bird. On “60 Minutes,” Big Bird tells Lesley Stahl, who was on the set when “Sesame Street” was filming the new Muppet’s debut, that he thought Julia didn’t like him at first. Elmo then explains, “Julia has autism so sometimes it takes her a little longer to do things.”
I can relate.
When my daughter started preschool, she would run laps around the perimeter of the fenced-in playground without responding to kids who said “hi” as she passed by. One day, she stopped in her tracks to pick up a jacket that had fallen to the ground, handed it to a girl without saying a word, and continued running. The kids on the playground probably assumed she didn’t like them — just as Big Bird did.
Within the past year, my daughter, who is now 3, my 2-year-old son and I were all given diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder because of our repetitive behaviors, obsessive interests, sensory issues and difficulty with social interactions and pragmatic communication skills. My kids are on the mild to moderate part of the spectrum, having language, but not intellectual, impairments. (I also have a 4-year-old daughter who does not have a diagnosis.)
Julia gives me hope that my children and their peers will grow up in a world where autism is normalized, rather than stigmatized. Preschoolers are the primary audience for “Sesame Street,” an educational television program where young children watching Julia’s interactions with her peers can learn by example to support autism acceptance. Since one in 68 American children have an autism diagnosis, wider understanding of the condition is valuable for them as well as for their peers.
Many people think of autism as affecting boys rather than girls, so simply presenting Julia, a female character, as the face of autism may help alter that perception. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4.5 boys are given the diagnosis for every girl. But according to new research on gender and autism, girls are often better than boys at masking their autistic traits as a coping mechanism, which may contribute to the skewed ratio.
“Sesame Street,” which has tackled challenging subjects like racism and death, is now helping autism awareness become more mainstream. Like many parents of autistic kids from my generation, I was unknowingly hiding my autism until I recognized that I also had the autistic traits I saw in my daughter. I was in my late 30s when I was given a diagnosis of high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, without intellectual or language impairments — also labeled Asperger’s syndrome. I want my kids to grow up knowing they’re autistic, so they understand their differences better than I did.
Even as a child, I knew I was different. I was selectively mute, though at the time everyone thought I was just extremely shy. I didn’t have many friends growing up because I didn’t understand social communication, and this carried into my adult life. I don’t want this kind of life for my kids.
I hope that having Julia as an accepted and likable character on “Sesame Street” will make it easier for my kids on the spectrum to navigate the social world.
My kids sometimes have meltdowns from the noise of jets passing overhead en route to the naval base near their preschool. “It’s O.K., I’m here,” I say to my kids, as other preschoolers and their parents walk by, staring at us huddled in the middle of the sidewalk. Sometimes, my words are enough to redirect them, and other times their crying fits last well after the jets pass through.
So far my kids seem oblivious to the stares, but there may be a time when that changes. When kids watching “Sesame Street” witness Julia having a meltdown because of the sound of an ambulance siren, they’ll see how her friends react. The other muppets try to comfort her, knowing that the noise bothers her, which helps to normalize meltdowns.
When Abby Cadabby asks Julia if she wants to play in another scene from the episode, Julia starts jumping up and down out of excitement, saying “Boing. Boing.” The other muppets follow her lead, adapting the game to accommodate her by playing what they call “Boing Tag.” My daughter didn’t know how to play tag until her applied behavior analysis therapist, who goes with her to preschool, showed her during free time on the playground. Eventually, the other kids noticed what my daughter was doing with her therapist and ended up joining the game. Now, my daughter plays tag with her friends without the intervention of a therapist.
Elmo attempts to play “Peek-a-Boo” with Julia in Sesame Workshop’s short video called “Julia’s Bunny.” When she doesn’t respond immediately, he says, “We can play side by side like we do sometimes.” Julia eventually ends up playing the game with Elmo, when she’s ready. The same thing happens with my son. His preschool starts the day with unstructured play time. When I drop him off, I sit him down on the rug with a Little People farmhouse and animals, toys familiar to him because he has them at home. The other kids in his class come running over to play with him. Like Julia, he doesn’t respond at first when one friend makes the pig “oink” at him, or another friend has the horse “neigh” at him, but eventually he picks up the cow and says, “moo,” back at them.
Characters like Julia not only can serve as role models for kids who are on the spectrum, but also can help normalize autism for neurotypical kids. As the “Sesame Street” writer Christine Ferraro said on “60 Minutes,” “I would love her to be not Julia, the kid on ‘Sesame Street’ who has autism. I would like her to be just Julia.”