Dear Sesame Street,
I grew up watching your show. I was born in 1981 and I have many fond memories of watching Sesame Street with various family members. It made me happy when I saw kids who weren’t abled or were diverse in some way. You made it ok to be different, to think differently, to behave different from the norm and still be ok. For my early childhood anyways, between you and Mr. Rogers, I felt like it was okay to be me.
When I had children, I couldn’t wait to introduce my kids to Sesame Street. They loved it just as much as I did. I’m fairly certain my daughter was watching it long before her second birthday.
So when I saw that you were beginning a new autism initiative, I was tentatively excited. After all, you helped this autistic person accept themselves. Both of my children are also autistic and I hoped that this would be more explicit acceptance of autistic people.
But then I found out that you were partnering with Autism Speaks, which sounds great, but is not. Autism Speaks contributes to the stigma against autistic people in a big way. So I, along with other supporters of Boycott Autism Speaks, tweeted you to let you know how we felt. We left messages on your Facebook page. Yet we received no response. (But I did see a statement from ASAN regarding their involvement, so this is a small somewhat good step) .
This week, you introduced Julia, an autistic Muppet. I think she’s great, and as an autistic person who is not a young boy, having a character who is autistic be a girl is a huge step. I think many of the stories are good, too. It’s fantastic to see an autistic person use AAC and not be shamed for it. It’s great to see a child stim and it be okay. (I was not so pleased with the casual discussion of holding down an autistic kid to brush her hair. That’s all kinds of wrong).
But then I go to the resources on your page and there’s a resource page for parents and teachers and siblings and? Where are the resources for autistic people? Then I realized that this was never for us. This was never so kids like mine could have a character to relate to. This was so that parents could have a character to point to so they can explain autism. This is so that other kids know what to look for to identify autistic kids. This isn’t really for me or for my kids. This isn’t for people like us. This is for others to explain us.
All of this is so clear when I realize that Julia isn’t a real Muppet. She’s a cartoon. She’s not like Elmo and Abby Cadabby and Rosita and Grover and Telly. She’s just a cartoon. As autistic people, we aren’t often considered real people. We are often calling ourselves unpeople in autistic spaces because that’s how people treat us. There are studies done about whether autistic people are capable of pain, of emotion. And this is only reinforcing that.
With collaboration with Autism Speaks and Autism Daddy, I am not surprised. But I’m hurt.
I don’t expect perfection. But with the person first language (notice my use of identity first language? It’s intentional because most of the autistic community prefers that), the fact that Julia isn’t a real Muppet and the lack of resources for autistic people, I’m a bit miffed. Because you have the ability to do much better. But you chose to center this on non autistic voices, while never responding to the autistic people begging you to do what’s right.
I see that this is a step toward acceptance and understanding. It might help preschool kids accept kids like mine, and is a step toward understanding. But we still have a long way to go.