Sunday, October 25, 2015

The New Kid on Sesame Street

A few days ago, a new character joined the Sesame Street neighborhood, and she has already become controversial as a topic of discussion in the media. Julia has orange hair and green eyes. She has trouble making eye contact, sometimes takes a long time to answer questions, and flaps her arms when she is excited.  In addition, she is also described as curious and very smart. Julia has autism.

Introduced by the Sesame Workshop a few days ago, the new character is “part of an initiative designed to reduce the stigma surrounding autism.” [To read the news report from PBS, please click here.] This initiative, entitled “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children” provides online and printed story books, a free downloadable app, and resources for parents and teachers, including routine cards on how to handle everyday activities with children who have autism. Although Julia will share storylines with Sesame Street characters Elmo and Abby in the books and resources, she will not yet be a part of the long-running children’s television show.

Immediately critics noted that while autism is much more prevalent in boys than girls, the creators of this initiative chose to make this first character with autism a girl. In addition, the debate regarding how to refer to this character also appeared this week. Is she an autistic character or a character with autism? Some adults on the autism spectrum prefer that she be called an autistic girl, asserting that autism is part of the personality. Other people prefer the “person-first” language in which the disability comes last in describing the character: a girl with autism.

Yet another area of debate arose as Sesame Street chose not to address the controversy regarding the cause of autism. While some factions insist that autism is a genetic, congenital disorder, others believe that environmental factors, such as toxins from the environment and/or vaccines, trigger neurological damage that leads to the diagnosis of autism. Apparently, some critics accuse Sesame Street of siding with the pharmaceutical companies who manufacture vaccines because of their decision to avoid discussing any potential causes of autism in Julia.

Julia, however, is not the first character with a disability on Sesame Street. As early as the 1970’s, characters such as deaf actress Linda Bove, paraplegic Tarah Schaeffer, and blind Muppet Aristotle were introduced to teach children about people with disabilities. To introduce a character with autism at this time shows how prevalent a formerly rare disorder has become. While the intention to educate typical children about peers who have autism seems to have a noble motive, I hope that Julia is not simply a one-dimensional token character, the one who has autism.

Frankly, I’m a little disappointed that Sesame Street has given a girl whom they deem “amazing” a common (albeit beautiful) name. Unlike the other girls on Sesame Street, such as Zoe, Abby Cadabby, and Prairie Dawn, Julia doesn’t have a poetic name. Also, unlike her female peers who accessorize their outfits (especially Abby Caddabby who wears fairy wings), Julia dresses rather simply with no jewelry like Zoe wears. Perhaps this is to show her sensory issues; she must wear comfortable clothes that don’t bother her and no accessories that might distract her.

Apparently, Julia’s most understanding peer is Elmo, the cute and furry little red monster, who explains her autistic idiosyncrasies to other characters who misinterpret her impaired language and social skills and think she doesn’t like them. Elmo explains, “…Julia has autism. So she does things a little differently.” As if Elmo weren’t lovable enough, his concern for Julia makes him even more endearing. Perhaps Elmo is not just a sympathetic character, but actually an empathetic one. Maybe Julia isn’t the first Muppet with autism, after all. In fact, I think that Elmo was the first character with autism on Sesame Street because he displays the following traits common in autism:

Pronoun Reversal––To prevent confusing the first and second person pronouns I and you,  Elmo refers to himself in the third person, using he, him, and his, and more commonly just calling himself "Elmo," as in “’Elmo doesn’t think that’s true,’ Elmo says.”

Difficulty in Controlling Vocal Volume––Elmo has a great deal of trouble modulating his voice, talking entirely too loudly most of the time.

Poor Eye Contact and Hand Flapping––Although Elmo’s googly eyes make it difficult to discern his ability to make eye contact, he certainly exhibits the stereotypical arm flapping motions when he is excited.

Sensory Issues––Yet another indicator that Elmo has autism lies in his obvious need for sensory stimulation. The popular Tickle Me Elmo clearly craves tactile stimulation.
Obsessions and Compulsions-––In a You Tube clip, Elmo show classic autism behaviors by becoming obsessed with the "CLOSED" sign, repeating the word over and over and then showing the insistence upon following rules often seen in autism.

Putting aside the controversial aspects regarding Julia and my tongue-in-cheek assessment of Elmo, one of those who developed the character of Julia has a powerful motivation. Autism mom Leslie Kimmelman, who wrote the online storybook We Are Amazing that introduces Julia, explains when her son was diagnosed with autism more than twenty years ago, not much was known about autism. She comments that autism is “still a puzzle, and every child is affected differently.” Moreover, she explains, “So what’s the most important thing for people to know? We’re all different in some way or another––that’s what makes the world an interesting place.”

While eliminating stigmas, making people aware of autism, and helping them to understand why our children behave differently is important, we cannot lose sight of the ultimate goal: helping our children reach their full potential and searching for a cure for this disorder that attacks their nervous systems. It’s all well and good to call these children amazing, but I look forward to the day when Elmo doesn’t have to speak for Julia, and I don’t have to speak for Alex. Think what these curious and very smart children will be able to tell when they overcome the obstacles autism has presented in their lives—now that will truly be amazing!

“Everyone was gripped with great wonder and awe, and they praised God, exclaiming, “We have seen amazing things today!” Luke 5:26

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