Sesame Street’s autism representation isn’t perfect. But it still has the potential to be great.
I n a brief clip released by Sesame Street this week, Julia, the 4-year-old autistic Muppet who will make her television debut during Autism Awareness Month in April, quietly hums the show’s theme to herself and her stuffed animal. Her friend Abby Cadabby walks into the frame.
“I know that song, Julia!” she exclaims, and then she starts singing along.
I’m 35 years old, and I can’t watch those 80 seconds of two puppets singing together without bawling.
I am autistic. I’ve always sung and talked to myself and my stuffed animals. I was Julia when I was growing up. I even had a moment almost exactly like that clip when I was 10. It just didn’t end nearly as well.
One afternoon, I realized that a former friend and current bully was softly singing my favorite song as she worked two desks down from me. I was so excited that I didn’t even care that she was getting the lyrics wrong. Which is saying a lot. That level of imprecision usually makes my skin crawl.
This, I thought, was my big chance. If I could let her know that I liked that song, too, maybe she would realize that I wasn’t that different, weird, or wrong after all. Maybe all of my bullies would stop hating me. Maybe I could be part of their group again — or maybe they’d just leave me alone. So I started planning all of the things that I could say to her in my head, from a simple “I love that song!” to a question about the band who played it. If all else failed, I figured, I could start singing along.
When I thought I had my lines down, I turned to look at her, opened my mouth — and froze. Not a single one of those carefully prepared words came out. Not a single note.
I’m 35 years old, and I can’t watch 80 seconds of two puppets singing together without bawling.
“Why are you staring at me?” she snapped after a minute that was probably equally painful for both of us.
I still couldn’t say anything, so I just looked away. Her group continued to follow me around every single recess, mimicking every odd gesture I made with my hands. Streaks of marker continued to show up “mysteriously” on my clothes. Prank calls continued to come to my home. My classmates continued whispering insults behind me while I was trying to work at my desk. I transferred to another school a few months later. I’ve never attempted anything like that again.
I’ve had mixed at best feelings about Sesame Street’s Julia-related efforts since she was first introduced in a digital storybook as a part of the Sesame Street and Autism: Seeing Amazing In All Children initiative in late 2015. I was pleased that they’d consulted the Autistic Self Advocacy Network in the development of their materials, but disappointed that they’d also talked to the almost entirely neurotypical-run — and deservedly loathed — organization Autism Speaks in the name of balance. An organization that treats autistic people as tragic burdens doesn’t deserve equal consideration when you’re crafting videos and books that are trying to help promote the acceptance of autistic children.
The initial results didn’t ease my worries. I was pleasantly surprised by both the diversity and the message featured in the “What Makes You Amazing?” video, which features nonverbal and verbal autistic boys and girls — including many children of color, who are incredibly underrepresented and underserved in the autism community — celebrating what they love about their autism. Most of the other videos, though, ranged from patronizing to downright harmful. And I was not a fan of Sesame Street’s use of person-first language (Julia has autism), when autistic people almost universally prefer identity-first language (Julia is autistic). (For more on just how much Seeing Amazing got wrong, see autistic blogger Erin Human’s detailed breakdown from 2015.)
Sesame Street’s past treatment of autism has mostly ranged from patronizing to downright harmful.
So when I found out that Julia was making the leap to television, I didn’t want to get too excited. But the new videos, released in preparation for her network debut in April, give me tentative hope. In particular, the videos demonstrate care and attention to showing non-autistic kids how to interact kindly with autistic friends and classmates — something that could make the new generation of little Sarahs a lot less isolated, anxious, and unhappy. That’s why watching Abby and Julia singing together makes me weep. My heart’s breaking for what could have been if this kind of programming had existed when I was growing up, but it’s also growing three sizes over the thought that it might not happen again in the future.
Whether Big Bird is learning that Julia didn’t mean to offend him when she didn’t acknowledge him right away, Elmo is using his stuffed animal to initiate a game with Julia and her bunny, or Abby is learning to interact and play with her on terms that work for both girls, there’s a distinct focus on learning to socialize with autistic people in these segments that’s been missing from most autism-related media so far. For many non-autistic kids, this will be the first time that they’ve seen autistic kids as equal human beings whose differences can be celebrated instead of shunned. For autistic kids, this isn’t just the first time they’ll be able to see someone like themselves on screen—it might be the first time they’ve ever seen anyone like them treasured by their peers. The inclusion of interactions like this in one of the most influential and beloved children’s television programs of all times has the power to change what happens in classrooms and on playgrounds across the world.
For autistic kids, this isn’t just the first time they’ll be able to see someone like themselves on screen — it might be the first time they’ve ever seen anyone like them treasured by their peers.
Some neurotypical writers, including the Guardian’s Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, who has an autistic brother, have touched on this issue, bringing up the astoundingly high percentage of autistic children who suffer from bullying and suggesting that characters like Julia have the potential to spare kids a lot of pain. But what Sesame Street is doing, given the age of its audience and its influence on childhood development, actually goes even deeper than that.
Bullying is an incredibly traumatic experience for any child, but there’s something uniquely damaging about the effect it has on autistic kids. Speaking from (unfortunately ongoing) experience, I can tell you that when you have a disability that involves issues with socialization and you’re treated with almost unceasing disdain and cruelty for the most vulnerable and formative years of your life, you don’t develop anything remotely healthy in terms of social skills or self-image. This, in turn, can unleash a whole new set of behavioral patterns that might only further ruin your sense of belonging and social life. (“I am going to alienate everyone before they can realize that I’m loathsome so at least it’s my choice this time,” for example, is no way to get through the ninth grade.) Pain sucks, but you get over that as you grow up. Meanwhile, the miseducation that results from those years takes a lifetime to unlearn.
Any positive influence on the way that autistic children are treated, no matter how imperfect, can change entire autistic lives for the better.
Any positive influence on the way that autistic children are treated, no matter how frustratingly imperfect, doesn’t just have the potential the prevent an autistic kid from going through what I went through. It has the power to save the next generation of autistic adults from a lifetime of assuming that everyone will hate them on sight and acting accordingly, waiting for everyone who has ever shown them a modicum of tolerance to finally figure out what’s secretly wrong with them or suspecting that their friendship is just a long con that will lead to some sort of brutal humiliation, and yelling “Why can’t I get over this already? I just want to move on with my life?” to their therapists in exasperation. It can fundamentally change entire autistic lives for the better.
Sesame Street still has a long way to go in terms of autism representation. The supplementary materials they provide online haven’t improved since they were first released in 2015. The person-first language is an ongoing issue. Julia’s friends — and any adults who happen to be around — spend far, far too much time speaking for her and over her as opposed to allowing her to express herself. It would be nice to see the first autistic Muppet given a shred of the agency that the autistic children from What Makes You Amazing? had. It’s wonderful that Julia’s puppeteer, Stacey Gordon, has said that she wants her 13-year-old autistic son to be proud of her work, but it’s no substitute for employing actually autistic people in the creation and portrayal of autistic characters.
As evidenced by the coverage surrounding the introduction of Julia, the world in general has a long way to go when it comes to autism, too. I’m frustrated that I haven’t come across a single story that deigns to interview an autistic person about how they might feel about Julia. I’m downright angry that I’ll probably be the only autistic writer who will be paid to cover this at all, while parents and siblings are hailed as the true experts about our lives once again.
But while I remain extremely ambivalent about Julia’s development, portrayal, and use as a talking point in the media, my feelings about her impact are a lot less complicated. Autistic representation doesn’t have to be perfect to change lives. If even one kid is spared from spending the next quarter century wondering what could have happened if they’d been able to sing along, this will all be worth it.