Sesame Street has been an important piece of countless childhoods for 50 years. Characters like Elmo, Big Bird, Grover, and Cadabby resonate well with children and parents love how educationally-focused the show is for little ones.
In October of 2015, Sesame Street debuted their first-ever autistic muppet- Julia in an online storybook. Since then, Julia has finally appeared on Sesame Street in April of 2019. Parents of Autistic children and the “Autism Community” (comprised mostly of non-autistic family members of autistic people/children) have rejoiced at the idea of Sesame Street teaching young children about autism.
The autistic community (comprised primarily of autistic people), on the other hand, was a bit more apprehensive. After anxiously waiting to here who would be consulting on Julia, autistics were somewhat frustrated to hear that Autism Speaks but overall elated to learn that the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) was also partnering with Sesame Street!
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is an advocacy group run by autistics, for autistics.
Autism Speaks, on the other hand, actively contributes to the discrimination that autistic people face, use language that autistic people do not prefer, use outdated and harmful symbols for autism, and encourage and support parents who abuse and even kill autistic children and adults.
Despite the partnership with Autism Speaks, the autistic community remained optimistic that ASAN’s void would be heard, and with it, the voices of autistic people.
Sesame Street has made some headway in terms of autism acceptance via Julia, and it would be unjust for us to skim over them:
- Julia’s muppet was carefully created so that even small details would relate back to her being autistic– she has relatively loose-fitting clothing, her hair is worn down with no bows or ribbons, and her eyes can be changed to open, half open, or closed. In short, her muppet wears a sensory-friendly outfit and hairstyle, and is equipped to show signs of distress.
- The crew on Sesame Street has deliberately chosen to show Julia’s meltdowns and stimming behaviors as a learning tool to help children understand why autistic children may react differently to stimuli than others.
- Julia is an autistic girl. This is hugely important because of the underrepresentation of autistic girls in media (and the unconscionable disparity in diagnosing women and girls, or those Assigned Female At Birth [AFABs] with autism).
- Sesame Street’s Alan, when explaining autism to Big Bird, explained what autism is for Julia, rather than assigning a monolithic explanation of autism to all autistics. This is critically important to the understanding of autism, as all autistic people differ in their traits.
- Sesame Street’s inclusion of Julia has undoubtedly had a positive impact on autistic children and adults in ways both big and small.
- Sesame Street aims to teach non-autistic (or allistic) children to understand and help accommodate Julia, rather than teaching autistic children to blend in (as they are taught to in every aspect of their lives.)
- Julia is framed in a positive light, and friendship with Julia is something of an object to be desired by Big Bird during her Sesame Street debut.
- Other characters do not speak for Julia, they simply explain Julia’s differences (even following up with statements like “She likes it when people know that.”)
- Julia can be seen humming and talking to herself, and when Abby Cadabby approaches her, she joins along rather than thinking the behavior is strange.
- Julia is shown in one video using a communication device to help her communicate. Julia is largely nonverbal.
Unfortunately, all of those wonderful things cannot outweigh the damage that has been done by Sesame Street and Autism Speaks.
Even before the most recent discretion (which will be addressed below) Sesame Street was getting things wrong.
For starters, a partnership with Autism Speaks is deeply upsetting.
“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. “– Sarah Kurchak
Sesame Street also uses Person-First Language to describe autism (“person/child with autism”, “has autism”, “on the autism spectrum”) rather than Identity-First Language (“is autistic”, “autistic people/person/child”), which is preferred by the overwhelming majority of autistic people (as indicated by several polls and surveys.)
Several of the digital stories and videos featuring Julia were less than stellar, often bordering on offensive.
But last week, Sesame Street rolled out an ad featuring Julia that advertised Autism Speak’s Early Screening for Autism and 100 Day Kit.
” Until this summer, the content Sesame Street produced showed parents that their autistic children could live great lives, and taught autistic and neurotypical children ways to become friends. Through this approach, See Amazing successfully encouraged the inclusion of autistic children in their communities, and had a widespread positive impact.”– The Autistic Self Advocacy Network
The Early Screening and 100 Day Kit is damaging to the autistic community. Rather than trying to summarize what ASAN has already said perfectly, I’ll quote them directly:
” The 100 Day Kit encourages parents to blame family difficulties on their autistic child (“When you find yourself arguing with your spouse… be careful not to get mad at each other when it really is the autism that has you so upset and angry”) and to view autism as a terrible disease from which their child can “get better.” It recommends compliance-based “therapies” and pseudoscientific “autism diets,” but fails to educate families about communication supports. It even instructs parents to go through the five stages of grief after learning that their child is autistic, as they would if the child had died. “– The Autistic Self Advocacy Network
Before making their statement and ending their partnership with Sesame Street, ASAN says they had repeatedly expressed concerns about the harmful nature of the 100 Day Kit and listed consequences at length.
Despite multiple warnings from ASAN, Sesame Street opted to go ahead with the promotion anyways.
When ASAN’s partnership with Sesame Street ended, so did the undying support of thousands of autistics globally.
Sesame Street has spent fifty years with a precise goal to impact actual lives and communities; it would be ignorant to deny the impact that promoting harmful rhetoric will have on autistic people.
To reach out to Sesame Street to ensure that autistic voices (and advocate voices) are heard:
- Contact Sesame Street on Facebook: Sesame Street, Sesame Workshop, Sesame Street in Communities, Sesame Place.
- Contact via verified Sesame Street characters on Facebook: Bert and Ernie, Count von Count, Grover, Abby Cadabby, Elmo, and Oscar the Grouch.
- Contact HBO via Facebook.
- Sign this petition encouraging Sesame Street to end their partnership with Autism Speaks.
- Use one (or more) of the emails below:
Let autistic voices be heard. Be loud, be vocal. Show Sesame Street that we will not be bulldozed by ignorance in favor of Autism Speaks.
“The See Amazing initiative was groundbreaking because it offered an alternative to these stories. It let families know that their autistic children are amazing, can live happy lives, and are deserving of love. Now, Sesame Street has decided to let See Amazing become just another vehicle for Autism Speaks to spread the same old toxic ideas. “– The Autistic Self Advocacy Network