Marybeth Nelson / Sesame Workshop
Can I make a confession? When I heard about an autistic character named Julia joining Sesame Street and “read” the online storybook featuring her, I wondered, Is this really necessary?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful to include an autistic muppet on a beloved children’s show, but who are we doing this for?
Growing up, I had a sometimes painfully ethnic name: Evanthia Mantzavinos (no middle name; that would’ve been cruel). I remember being herded into the cafeteria on the first day of school for the public announcement of which children were assigned to each class. I would hold my breath as the administrator reading off the alphabetized names got closer and closer to mine. He or she would fumble with it so awkwardly, struggling with each syllable (as if it weren’t just pronounced phonetically, my father used to reassure me). It wasn’t a great way to start the year off, with the feeling that I was the girl with the crazy name in a sea of Jennifers and Jessicas and Ashleys.
But once we got settled in class, I’d realize that the other kids didn’t seem confused by my ethnic name, like the adults. My name was my name, and they just accepted it. In fact, I don’t ever remember being teased about my name, as self-conscious as I was years ago.
I realize that having an unusual Greek name in a small New England town is not the same as having autism. I’m no stranger to autism: it’s something I experienced first-hand, every day as a teacher. But my observations on who struggled with my name were what popped into my head when I read about Julia. Sure, her inclusion is a great idea, to raise awareness of our differences and our likenesses, but for whom? The children listening to the story or the parents reading the story?
Marybeth Nelson / Sesame Workshop
Do kids watching Sesame Street need to be convinced that children who behave differently than them shouldn’t be ostracized, or is this a message we give our kids as we fight our own preconceptions of “normal”? The show’s target audience is awfully young to even notice the things that make Julia different, let alone find them off-putting. Julia doesn’t immediately respond when spoken to and needs to have things repeated. She doesn’t reply in complete sentences. She flaps her arms in excitement. She’s afraid of loud noises and shows a sensitivity to temperature.
I get it. These are all signs of moderate autism, but they’re also signs of youth. They’re not necessarily traits that will read as “different” to a two- or three-year-old. They’re just signs that adults have come to label collectively as “abnormal,” but I sincerely doubt that even my five-year-old would notice many (or any) of these traits if she were playing with a child with Julia’s symptoms.
After all, children aren’t prewired with an understanding of what’s normal. They learn that from us.
Just yesterday, my daughter encountered a toddler in the grocery store dressed in his pajamas, something her time as a member of my family has taught her is unusual. Right in front of the boy’s father, she asked, “Why is that boy in his pajamas?” I could have been embarrassed (maybe I should have been embarrassed!), but I quickly responded by saying, “Because he wants to be all snuggled up!” Sure, he’s doing things differently than we do them, but that’s not bad or wrong.
I don’t have any problem with Julia or autism or autism awareness. But let’s not forget, kids think nothing of magical purple-haired muppets who fly, so why on earth do we think it’s progressive to include a child who behaves just slightly outside the toddler norm on Sesame Street?
It’s the adults who need more Julia characters, not the kids.