Today’s guest blogger is Georgina Perez Liz, research assistant with the Early Detection Project in Drexel University’s A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. A version of this blog first appeared on the Drexel News Blog.
Since its debut in 1969, “Sesame Street” has introduced young viewers to a wide variety of characters who live their own unique lives in unique ways. But no matter how unique each character is— whether they’re pre-occupied with numbers, hold conversations with imaginary friends or just a little grumpy—everyone is treated as his or her own kind of amazing.
The latest character to show that is Julia, a Muppet 4-year-old with autism. Set to make her first live appearance Monday, she’ll be introduced as just another normal resident of Sesame Street who “does things a little differently.”
I got a sneak peek at Julia, who has already starred in storybooks, as a part of the “See Amazing in All Children” initiative by Sesame Street. Between my work in early detection of autism in children and being the mother of a 6-year-old on the spectrum, I feel that I have a special viewpoint on the value of this new character.
So here are three things that I think parents should keep in mind as their children watch Julia:
1. It can be important for children with autism to see someone like themselves.
Autistic children in the target age group for this show might not know that they have autism or even self-identify with those traits yet. However, for those who do, a lack of representation of their own traits in the mainstream media is likely to contribute to making them feel like “not fitting in.”
As the parent of a child with autism, it has particularly resonated with me that “Sesame Street” chose the phrase “See amazing in all children” as the slogan of this initiative. People with autism have a lot to contribute to society, and by showing a character like Julia in the mainstream media, we are showing that we recognize and celebrate them. I have read several opinions by people with autism who agree that seeing a portrayal of someone with autism in mainstream media implies that they are not invisible, that they matter just as much as everyone else.
2. Julia is not a representation of how autism presents itself in every person on the spectrum.
Portrayals of people with autism in a movie or TV show are bound to be incomplete. Stephen Shore, an autistic self-advocate said, “If you’ve met one person with autism — you’ve met one person with autism,” meaning that no two people with autism are the same. Picking certain traits for a character is a mere representation and it seems that “Sesame Street” has done a good job with that. Highlighting Julia’s talents like singing and painting is just as important as depicting her common struggles like loud noises.
3. How others on the show interact with Julia can be just as important as how she is portrayed.
It will be very interesting to watch how “Sesame Street” shows Julia’s interactions with other characters, and how well they represent others adjusting to accommodations needed to welcome the new Muppet on the block. For example, Big Bird might initially think that Julia doesn’t want to talk to him because she doesn’t immediately respond to his greeting. Later, he could learn she responds in her own time, and they play together. A scenario like that could help children without autism learn kind and appropriate ways to behave toward friends and classmates with autism. These characters would be positive models.