Hopes and Fears for an Autistic Muppet

It was about a year and a half ago that Sesame Street launched it’s Autism Initiative and I was so excited. I wrote a review about it on this blog. Mostly, my review was positive. A main sticking point, for me, was that they created Julia, an autistic Muppet, but she only appeared in storybook form. That did not sit well with me – I wanted to see her as a real muppet, on the Street. This is what I wrote:

It has been announced that Julia will only be a digital character for now – there are no plans to make her a muppet on the Street. Boo! I understand that the process for introducing a new, actual part of the cast is a complicated one, but clearly she needs more representation than just a digital book or two. Otherwise, this does not feel like inclusion at all, but simply a token, which is how so many kids with autism are feeling anyway. Sesame Workshop, if you really want to stay true to this mission of inclusion, you will create a Julia muppet, who will interact with the muppets on the Sesame Street everyday. Just like the deaf actress Linda Bove, she could sometimes appear when autism is the focus, but sometimes she could be just part of the cast of characters. Hear my cry: MAKE JULIA REAL!

Well, ladies and gentleman, I’m proud to say that someone at Sesame Workshop listened to me! Okay, maybe not just me, exactly, but to the enormous amount of feedback they received from the initial materials they presented for the autism initiative. Last Sunday night, on CBS’s 60 Minutes program, it was announced that Julia will appear as a real muppet on Sesame Street starting on April 10th!

This is amazing news and I’m so glad that this is happening! At the same time, as a parent of an autistic child, I cannot help but feel a little bit of trepidation for this character’s portrayal. I’ve been watching a lot of the YouTube clips that Sesame Workshop released as a part of this announcement, and I have some thoughts on my hopes and fears for Julia as she continues to be introduced.

My Hopes

The real hope for Julia is that she will be a regular character who everyone accepts, despite her unique behaviors. This is inclusion at it’s best. It’s what I would want for every special needs child. Sesame Street is modeling for us how we want children with autism to be treated – just like any other child.

I think it’s no accident that Julia is introduced through short scenes that feature Elmo and Abby Cadabby, the two most popular characters on Sesame Street. My hope is that these two continue to model what appears to be very flexible playing with Julia. For example, in this clip, Elmo does such a good job at playing close to Julia without forcing her into play. They start with parallel playing, and end up with cooperative play. Their peek-a-boo game comes about naturally (watch the video here if you do not see it below):

Abby also does a good job at being patient with Julia. While she wants to play with Julia, Julia does not want to play the games she wants to play. Abby is okay with not playing the games she suggests. Instead, she works hard to find a commonality with Julia: (Watch this clip here if you do not see it below.)

When it comes down to it, Julia is not just an important character for kids with autism, like Quentin. She’s also important for kids like Fiona, Quentin’s neurotypical twin sister, who needs both tips to demonstrate autism acceptance. At nine years old, my twins are a little too old for Sesame Street at this point (even though Quentin still returns to it regularly, as he does with most children’s programming of his babyhood). However, I do feel that neurotypical preschoolers can benefit from seeing Julia on Sesame Street, and I’m grateful for that.

Let’s not forget about neurotypical parents, too! It has been my experience that other parents don’t know how to handle autistic kids like Quentin. I hope that parents will co-view episodes of Sesame Street that include Julia so that they, too, can learn a few things about acceptance and how to interact with children like mine.

Fiona watched the 60 Minutes announcement with me, and was happy to see a muppet with autism. When I asked her why she was glad they were adding Julia, she said, “So other kids can understand what Quentin is like.” For too long, Fiona has bear the burden of explaining autism to her peers. She is also extremely embarrassed by his behaviors. When she was a preschooler, I remember her defining autism for a play date like this: “It’s when you can’t talk and you act crazy all the time, and sometimes you cry a lot.” Well, yes… that’s her brother, but not everyone with autism. It made me realize that Fiona’s unique perspective of autism is only how she sees her brother, without a clear grasp on the diagnosis. Which brings me to my fears about introducing a character with autism on Sesame Street…

My Fears

While I am so happy to see autism represented on Sesame Street, I fear that children (and parents alike) may not realize that Julia is just ONE example of a child with autism spectrum disorder, and her behaviors don’t represent everyone with the diagnosis. For example, she flaps her hands a lot. This is not at all like Quentin, who does not have this repetitive physical movement. However, Quentin and Julia do share some similar speech issues: Julia does not always speak so clearly, and when she does, it is often in one- or two-word phrases. This is very similar to Quentin’s speech pattern. The point here is that autism presents itself differently in everyone who has it. My biggest fear is that she bears the burden of representing so many. I know that the people behind creating the character of Julia are concerned about this as well, and they have consulted a long list of groups to advise them. Because of this, I know that this is a concern they have, too, and it will be handled as best as it can be.

Another big fear I have is that Elmo and Abby Cadabby sometimes come off as a bit too wise for their years in speaking to Julia. For example, in this clip, Elmo exclaims, “That was so good, Julia!” and it comes off as a bit patronizing to me: (View the clip here if you do not see it below.)

Abby, too, seems like too much of a teacher and less of a friend in the clip about bubbles, below. (Or click here to see it.)

Because Elmo and Abby are modeling play behaviors for neurotypical friends, I want them to approach autism more like well-meaning preschoolers do, and less like adults or teachers. I fear that if this kind of adult-like language becomes how they regularly approach Julia, other children will find it to be okay to talk to kids with autism in this way.

Questions that Remain

When Fiona and I finished watching the 60 Minutes piece, she asked, “So are they going to show Julia having a meltdown?” Good question, Fiona!

In our experiences with Quentin, meltdowns have become a regular feature of autism. Quentin gets upset when the schedule changes, or if we do something he really does not want to. He does not have the language to express his need for routines, but at this point, I know that this is often the reason for him becoming upset. This is typical for children with autism. Meltdowns can happen at home, or they can happen in very public places. These days, they are less frequent, but when Quentin was a preschooler – the same age as Julia, the muppet – they were a regular occurrence.

We saw glimpses of what could be a small meltdown in the 60 Minutes clip. They showed a bit of a segment about Julia covering her ears for a firetruck siren that was too loud. This kind of sensory overload can cause a meltdown, so it was good to see that they are not ignoring meltdowns altogether. But I wonder if Sesame Street will go out of it’s way to paint a far rosier picture of autism than what reality is like.

I’m also curious if they portray any special therapies with Julia, such as speech, OT or PT? Will she wear noise-cancelling headphones, to cover her ears? Will she have a chewable necklace, to tame her need to chew on things? Will she use a communication device? Will she wander away? These are just some of the many things that children with autism might have or be dealing with. It will be interesting to see the choices that Sesame Workshop makes for her.

Finally, the big question that remains is: How much will Julia be integrated into plot lines that don’t put her at the forefront? Will she be involved with segments that involve numbers and letters? How will she react to Cookie Monster’s love of cookies or Oscar’s grouchiness? Like everyone else, I’m hoping for the best for Julia. She’s autism’s newest ambassador, so we are depending on her!


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