I’m sorry that this is not a proper blog post. This is really just an unedited (except by internal self editor) set of thoughts about the new character Julia, inspired by some things that my fellow autistic friends have posted.
First, let me say that I like Julia as a concept but she’s very one dimensional. It’s obvious that there’s a big “autism parent” influence on her creation, because I am seeing a lot of language that I get from Autism parents rather than language from autistic people. I know that ASAN was involved. But the ways that she’s described isn’t really about a person. It’s about a list of characteristics, of symptoms. Which is really how autistic people are described by neurotypical and non autistic people.
I appreciate that she’s presented in a very age appropriate way. I expected nothing less of Sesame Street. I also know that having a main character, like Elmo, introduce her is typical of Sesame Street. Or like Bob, a human character in this clip, though technically he’s simply providing interpretation for her, not speaking about her as if she weren’t there (though that legitimately does happen to D/deaf and hard of hearing people in real life all the time, being spoken about while still in the room). It isn’t that I have an issue with Elmo introducing her. It’s that I don’t get a sense of Julia coming through as I did with Samara. I didn’t get a sense of any of her personality beyond a checklist of symptoms.
As for the family stories, I liked parts of them. But I still saw plenty of subtle and not so subtle ableism. It’s subtle to neurotypical people because they might not pick up on it right away. And even autistic people like me might feel something off but not immediately identify what it is that’s off. I want to offer suggestions for Yusenia’s family that involves not restraining her. I have a sensitive head and so does my daughter and I have found a brush that makes it not just bearable or tolerable but simple, easy, fun and not stressful. I want to tell Yesenia’s dad that birthday celebrations don’t have to fit a mold. That it’s okay to not tolerate the stress and noise and there’s other fun things to do with friends that are atypical but fun.
I am a parent of two wonderful autistic kids (one, who, like me, also has ADHD). We have very different interests. I haven’t celebrated a birthday in a typical way since I was a child. Even as a child I only had a few birthdays that were celebrated in typical ways (and those were exhausting for me) and many times were considered too young for my actual age. For instance I went bowling with a few friends and had a sleepover for my 16th birthday. And that’s okay! My aunt took me to my favorite restaurant about six weeks after my birthday (something we planned; I had to wait until I had a day off and could do this without our schedules clashing). We spent about an hour and a half there and it was lovely! I hope I get to do this again this coming year. Things don’t have to be like everyone says they should be to be acceptable. Find your normal.
Autistic adults – where are we in this? Linda was the first deaf character I ever saw on TV. I know there have been other adults with various disabilities on Sesame Street, as well as kids. I want to see an autistic adult on Sesame Street, even if they are nothing like me.
Finally, I think Sesame Street has done some great things with acceptance of all people. They were the first to show me a character who was deaf and a character in a wheelchair. They were the first show to introduce racial and economic diversity to my young self and I appreciate that. But here’s the thing. Four year olds don’t really need a primer on autism. They need a primer on how do I help my friend have as much fun as I’m having? So a checklist on autism isn’t helpful (which is what I feel like Julia’s app story is, a checklist). Being an accepting person and finding out how to make your friend comfortable and asking that friend, which is not something I see happening with Julia at all (Elmo talks to Abby about Julia ; but they’re not really asking Julia what she wants and needs). I want to know who Julia is. I want to see her personality shine through.