Evie 6Comment

Does Sesame Street Really Need an Autistic Character.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?

Julia 1Marybeth 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.

Evanthia signature

6 thoughts on “Does Sesame Street Really Need an Autistic Character?

  1. Evie, great piece! I totally agree with you. If that’s the case, than there’s somethings definitely off with the rest of the crew– Elmo, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch!

  2. Sorry, but completely disagree with you on this one. I have four children – one of which is autistic. I’ve tried explaining to his younger sister what autism is, and I always felt like I wasn’t explaining it right or that she didn’t understand. Sesame Street is a wonderful vehicle to spread autism awareness and try to show what autism is, who it affects (families, especially), and what some of the symptoms are. That’s what Sesame Street does – they teach children in ways that are entertaining and fun! There are more and more kids being diagnosed on the autism spectrum, and children can relate to and learn from Sesame Street what autism is, and it makes it more interesting and engaging to have a character representing autism. Kids see children with autism, and I have personally dealt with children who don’t understand what autism is and why they act “funny”. I’m personally very happy that they are introducing an autistic character!

    1. Angel, thanks so much for offering your perspective, as the mother of an autistic child! I agree with you that Sesame Street is a good starting point for raising awareness of autism, but I’m really hoping there will be a trickle-UP effect, so older audiences will get exposure, too.

      May I ask the age of your daughter, who you mentioned was struggling to understand autism? Have you had a chance to show her the online storybook with Julia in it? Did it help to clarify for her? I feel like a book like this would be much more help to my five-year-old than my two-year-old, but my five-year-old would also find it babyish. I’m curious what your experience has been.

  3. Evie,

    I have always believed that toddlers are incredibly intelligent people, just with younger brains :) I don’t know for sure, but I imagine a toddler with autism would have some awareness that he or she might be different than peers.

    I think Sesame Street is adding the character for the same reason we see dolls of different ethnicities on toy store shelves. Kids want to see themselves in toys and on tv. All kids want to feel included. If you saw a Sesame Street character with a Greek name, maybe it might have made your younger self feel a little better about being a little different :)

    I think it’s a great idea to help educate and bring awareness. And maybe you are right that on some level it helps people (adults) cope with having a child whose needs are different.

    1. I definitely understand what you’re saying: it’s wonderful for kids to see diversity on TV as well as characters they can relate to. I can’t really speak to whether an autistic two- or three-year-old would have a sense that they’re “different,” but I have my doubts given the lack of self-awareness I see in my own toddler (2.5 years old).

      My issue with a moderately autistic character on a show like Sesame Street, geared toward really little kids, is that the symptoms they’ve given Julia may not even read as “different” to the show’s audience. For instance, my own two-year-old is afraid of the sound of the blender, like Julia. So she may relate to that, not because the character is autistic, but because many of Julia’s symptoms are common in toddlers.

      It would be much more effective and educational for an autistic character to appear on a show for five-year-olds than toddlers. Heck, we need adult programming with a little more diversity! We’ll see when society comes around to that…

      Thanks for commenting!

  4. The question you pose is an interesting one. Who is Julia really educating?

    Do members of the target demographic really pick up on those “subtle” (in Julia’s case) differences? Maybe not. So I agree with your suggestion that Julia might just be there for the parents. I hope she can help educate I hope that some mom, perhaps watching the show over her child’s shoulder while folding laundry or envisioning a new color palette for the mantelpiece, might see Julia and learn a little compassion. Because many parents, not their children kinda need to…

    A few years ago I was the lucky mom to an adorable 24 month-old little girl. Despite being a first-time mom with virtually no experience with kids and no background in education, I had this persistent sense that something was not quite right with my daughter’s verbal ability. In my increasing distress, I reached out to a fellow member of my mommy “support” group. This particular mommy has a degree in education and had observed my daughter on many occasions. Several times, I expressed concern over my daughter’s inability to talk. At all.. Her response? She was tired of hearing me say this and that I needed a new “shtick”.

    In a recent speech therapy session, I related this incident to my daughter’s instructor. A kind woman, she reminded me gently that many people are uneducated about autism and its warning signs.. But this mommy, I explained to her, was an educator (well, at least has a degree). We joked that this individual might just need to watch Julia for a bit. Then again, I thought later, this “educator” would probably just tell Julia to cut it out and find a new shtick.

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