Julia: Autism on “Sesame Street”

“Sesame Street” has a new character. I might check her out, since I’m unusually familiar with the current “Sesame Street” for a 53-year-old man.

Alex drilled Elmo into his family’s brains for years: Elmo’s goldfish, Elmo’s Cinderella fantasy, Elmo’s musical variety show, Elmo’s bed routine, Elmo’s cowboy phase. Big Bird chipped in with a control freak’s birthday for kids and I swear Children’s Television Workshop got The Monkees’ Mike Nesmith to do “I’m a Little Airplane Now.” Something in “Sesame Street” always spoke to Alex.

Then there was the one they made after 9/11, in which a fire broke out in Hooper’s Store and Elmo was scared of both the fire and firefighters. He quaked and shivered as what I believe was a hunky real fireman (I think Jill had a crush on him) said, “A fire can be pretty scary. I guess a firefighter can be a pretty scary thing, too.” Elmo gets to visit a fire station and eat a peanut butter sandwich, I think it is, with the firefighters and so gets over his fear. That puts him ahead of a lot of people in the wake of that morning 14 years ago, but the point was made and the episode’s execution good.

“Sesame Street” has elected to handle many issues a lot thornier than the ABCs. I understand they’ve also made one where a neighborhood kid has a parent in jail. I haven’t seen that one, but I will try to catch some of Julia. She’s the Street’s new resident; she has autism.

Through all the hours of Alex and Elmo, Jill often remarked that disabilities on the show always seemed to be physical — not minor, to be sure, but not overtly emotional or behavioral. I guess that realistically you’d never pull off a production with those sorts of troubles.

After Jill said that I’d sometimes wonder what Alex might have been like on the set: asked to say “This is my family, Elmo” and instead just saying “ElMO” over and over or, more likely, giggling until he realized the lights were really hot and he decided to turn to me and say, “Michael’s!?” Then some intern with a clipboard would loom up and say, “Maybe he just needs a break…”

The lines about a “Sesame Street” character with autism, though, are potentially powerful.

Why does Julia bite herself?

Why doesn’t she say what she means?

Why does she keep running away? Doesn’t she like us anymore?

Why’d she lay down on the sidewalk outside Hooper’s Store?

Why’s her father drink so much?

“ ‘Sesame Street’s” idea of normal includes acceptance forged with questions — naturally a lot more than one finds off Sesame Street. Sometimes the show doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Consider how a recent news story about Julia opened:

“Fuzzy favorites Grover, Abby and Elmo are joined by their newest muppet pal, Julia, a character with autism, in Sesame Street Workshop’s new nationwide initiative. Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children aims to reduce ‘the stigma of autism’ with the introduction of the first muppet with autism. The initiative, created for communities and families with children ages 2 to 5, includes a free downloadable app that incorporates video, digital story cards designed to make daily life tasks easier for families of children with autism,” such as brushing teeth, going to bed and crossing the street.

Not to mention biting, bolting and public meltdowns. I could’ve used one of those apps the middle of one night when our neighbor phoned to say Alex was in her apartment, turning on all the lights. Or when he charged toward me outside a Michael’s, biting his own arm because the store didn’t have the plastic animal he’d wanted.

I do notice that the new character is a girl. Autism is five times more common in boys.

“So if Sesame … were truly interested in representing autism most accurately, wouldn’t its new character be a boy?” another article wonders. Word from The Street is that Julie took three years to create and that researchers surprised even many of the network execs when they suggested a girl. Everyone eventually decided that her gender would eliminate even more misconceptions about autism (mainly that it always afflicts boys).

Maybe. Maybe too a girl character more easily summons up feelings of protectiveness. Still, they do have a segment where another character talks about her friend, who is a boy with autism.

What kind of answers will Elmo and his crowd find? Probably not many close to my experience, but I suspect they’ll be straightforward, tinged unrealistically rosy and more about the perception of Alex rather than about Alex himself. Some readers of Julia articles hope the Street adds characters with other disabilities. It is a good start: “Sesame Street” remains our single best tool to forge subjective cultural opinion 30 years from now. I wonder if Alex will pause over Julia while looking for Elmo and firehouse to watch for the thousandth time.

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