There is a new Muppet on Sesame Street. She likes coloring, her stuffed rabbit, and, sometimes, she doesn’t respond when you talk to her. She also might repeat what you say, and if she’s upset or excited, she might start flapping her arms. Her name is Julia. Oh, and she also has autism.
Sesame Street doesn’t add new Muppets often; Julia is the first to be added to the cast in a decade (and just in time for Autism Awareness Month). Her arrival is a big deal, for more than just that reason. This addition to the classic children’s show will no doubt help many children better understand their classmates and friends who may be just a bit different from themselves.
When people think of autism, I imagine they think of someone like Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, a genius savant. While it’s nice to think that people might associate autism with something positive, it’s ultimately harmful because, just like all of us, no two people on the autism spectrum are the same. Some might be savants, some might have an intellectual disability. Some may not speak at all or simply repeat what is said to them, whereas others might have extraordinarily advanced language skills. Some might not express their emotions they way we’re used to, and some might react in startling ways if they are in a situation that is over-stimulating or upsetting for reasons we cannot understand. If that’s a hard thing for adults to understand, it’s not going to be something that children can easily understand. That’s where Julia comes in.
Julia represents many things. First and foremost, she represents a singular, unique individual with autism. That’s important- I think it is a common assumption for people to “lump” people with disabilities into one singular category, and therefore, assume that they all have the same profile and should be treated the same way. I think that’s just crazy. People with any kind of disability (or, perhaps, difference) are just as much individuals as anyone else. To assume that all people with autism are brilliant savants is just plain wrong, both factually and I would say morally- it strips these people of their individuality.
Julia also serves as an excellent opportunity to teach young children empathy and understanding. I can imagine that children may find it difficult to interact with their peers who are on the autism spectrum, if they don’t know how to go about it. To see a beloved character like Big Bird going through the same struggle, assuming Julia doesn’t like him because she doesn’t respond right away, teaches children that it’s okay for them to not understand at first. What’s even better than that? That characters like Elmo step in and help teach Big Bird that Julia just does things a bit differently, and that just because she doesn’t express herself in the way we’re used to, doesn’t mean she doesn’t like you or that she doesn’t feel things. It’s a heartwarming thing to think about – that the next generation will hopefully grow up with a better understanding of what autism is than anyone before them- and as a result, children with autism will feel more accepted.
Julia isn’t the only character with autism to have the potential for a lasting impact. Billy, the Blue Ranger in 2017’s Power Rangers movie, is also on the autism spectrum. His symptoms are subtle, and unique, as they should be. Billy is not a caricature of people with autism, he is simply Billy. He’s also a superhero. That’s a big deal to me, personally, as a huge superhero nerd. I believe superheroes have huge potential for empowering people. Professor X is in a wheelchair, Daredevil is blind, Spider-Man is bullied and struggles financially, Batman is an orphan, the Green Lantern Jessica Cruz struggles with anxiety, characters like Batwoman and Iceman identify as LGBT, and for a time, Hawkeye was deaf. These characters allow their fans to relate to them and to find power in being who they are. Now, children with autism have a positive, heroic role-model to look up to, teaching them that just because they have autism doesn’t mean they can’t be incredible.
Seeing characters like Julia and the Blue Ranger being introduced to mainstream media gives me great hope for the future. Hope that characters in the media will continue to grow in diversity, and that future generations will grow up being empathetic, understanding, and kind to one another despite their differences.
Welcome to Sesame Street, Julia. I’m really glad you’re here.