Q and A with Autism Alliance of Michigan on Sesame Street’s Newest Muppet with Autism


March, 2017

Sesame Street

The talk of the streets…well Sesame Street, at least, is Julia. Sesame Street announced a new character, Julia, who has autism. To learn a bit more, we sat down with our Chief Program Officer (Tammy Morris) at AAoM to get an idea of how big this announcement really is.

What does Julia joining the cast of Sesame Street mean to the autism community?

Awareness. At the Autism Alliance we work with individuals with autism and their families across the entire lifespan. Sadly, we know that older adults with autism can be less comfortable disclosing their diagnosis, because quite frankly it never benefitted them to reveal it to others. Younger generations of school age, transition age children and adults are in environments with a growing acceptance and opportunities to be included. For young children with autism, their peers, and quite honestly the grown-ups watching along, will hopefully hear messaging of acceptance. Learning how to have these conversations as early as Sesame Street could be life changing.

How do you think brining a character with autism to such a mainstream and influential program will affect the community at large?

This is a new character and we have yet to see what Julia brings to the community and the education of children at large. However, if everyone touched in any way by autism could listen and learn the lyrics to ‘The Amazing Song’ that alone would do so much ground. This messaging is what we live by at AAoM. Different, but not less. Different, but more the same. There are no such thing as ‘autistic behaviors’ but rather human behaviors and some people just get excited more easily. There are still people in the community at large who have never met anyone with autism, and whose only exposure was through the ‘Rainman’ movie. Every character and exposure to autism teaches community members about the variability along the autism spectrum. Once the community has seen many different faces of autism, and the range of gifts and needs associated, they will stop making presumptions and realize that they need to get to know the individual to have any idea at all about their abilities and sometimes hidden talents.

What are you thoughts on the initial portrayal of a character with autism as seen in this Butterfly scene?

There are layers to that question. At first glance the audience may focus on the communication challenges and stereotypies, the hand flapping, in this scene. I look forward to a day when we look at the function of a child’s behavior, such as being self-calming or stimulating, rather than the form alone. What I appreciated most was that Abby Cadabby leaned toward playing typical games from a closed set of routine or expected choices, such as playing ball. It was Julia who initiated playing the ‘butterfly’ game, and they appeared to have a great time. Autism families can tell countless stories of how they gathered or purchased all of the ‘perfect’ materials or toys, only to find themselves following their child’s lead chasing the wind through a window, playing a game with the window blind, or garage door opener. Play should be open-ended, which Julia and Abby demonstrated through this fun exchange.

What story lines would you like to see for Julia in her time on Sesame Street?

I hope that the story lines have universal messages and themes and are not limited to autism-specific issues. For example, the theme that change is hard, sometimes more for some children than others. How about what a child can say or do, does not necessarily represent how much they can understand, nor does it mean that their goals for social interaction and friendship are any different than a highly verbal child. Also, I think there are important safety issues that could be highlighted with Julia’s help, For example the 49% incidence rate of wandering from safety in children with autism, and the need for friends to keep an eye out for one another, particularly our most vulnerable friends. Recently we have had several examples of children whose serious medical or safety issues were ignored because their behavior was attributed to autism. People with autism can still break their leg. They can still be mad at their friends. They can demonstrate behavior simply as a result of parenting and routines in the home, that have nothing at all to do with their autism. Wouldn’t it be interesting if Julia experienced social isolation not because she had autism, because she was a girl, or has red hair.

Technically she is a triple minority. I have heard basically that Julia likes to draw. I would love to see an episode where Julia is corrected for not coloring in the lines, only to demonstrate her hidden artistic talents more creatively. And how boring the world would be if we all colored within the lines?

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