Sesame street character brings awareness to the spectrum of autism

In Opinion
(Courtesy of Zach Hyman)

In a world full of bigotry, people can still count on “Sesame Street” to provide inclusive and progressive education for young children.

“Sesame Street” is on a mission to help parents and neurotypical kids understand different aspects of autistic behavior, interact with children on the spectrum and accept other children general differences from each other.

This will be done through the introduction of their first autistic Muppet, Julia.

There are not many dynamic autistic characters on television, and when there are, they are geared towards teens and adults, such as the characters Connor from “Degrassi: The Next Generation” and Max from “Parenthood.”

While it is necessary to represent more autistic characters in shows aimed toward teens and adult audiences, there is a significant lack of representation of people within the spectrum on children’s shows.

One in 68 children are on the autism spectrum and autistic children are five times more likely to be bullied than neurotypical children, according to a 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.

If anyone needs an autistic character to learn from, it’s impressionable children. This is why “Sesame Street” is delighting parents of autistic children across America–including the puppeteer tasked with bringing Julia to life, Stacey Gordon.

“The ‘Meet Julia’ episode is something that I wish my son’s friends had been able to see when they were small. I remember him having meltdowns and his classmates not understanding how to react,” said Gordon in an interview with the Associated Press.

Gordon also used to be a therapist for children on the spectrum.

“We heard a call to use our expertise and characters to build a bridge between the autism and neurotypical communities,” said Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president of U.S. Social Impact, to AP. “We’re modeling the way both children and adults can look at autism from a strength-based perspective–finding things that all children share.”

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind “Sesame Street,” has spent over five years of research working with over 250 organizations and experts within the autism community in order to “address an increasingly prevalent condition,” according to a March 20 press release.

Julia’s development is three years in the making, with extensive consultations with organizations, experts and families within the autism community in order to decide on what autistic traits she should have.

While she represents the full range of children on the spectrum, Julia is meant to be “unique” just like every other child, with or without autism, Betancourt said in an interview with AP.

Julia demonstrates qualities many children with autism identify with and neurotypical children will recognize such as shyness, flapping her her hands, noise sensitivity, and slow comprehension and response.

“I would love her to be (a major character). I would love her to be not Julia, the kid on ‘Sesame Street’ who has autism. I would like her to be just Julia,” said Christine Ferraro, one of the shows writers, to “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl.

The response to Julia will hopefully be overwhelmingly positive so she can be welcomed back to the show for more than two episodes. (And hopefully the rumors that Donald Trump is planning on trying to defund PBS are false, or else that his proposed plans are not ratified.)

Other children’s TV shows should take note and follow in “Sesame Street’s” footsteps by adding autistic characters to their shows, or even creating shows featuring an autistic child as the main protagonist.

Autism is referred to as a “spectrum” for a reason–there are many different traits and degrees of functionality. Television shouldn’t rely on Julia to be the only example of what a child on the spectrum can manifest as.

The more far-reaching representation becomes, the more neurotypical children and their parents will understand how autistic children process and execute tasks differently. Julia teaches that autistic children are still worthy and deserving of friendship and understanding. The need for diversity, especially in television, is absolute.

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