Off Script: Sesame Street’s autistic character is an excellent example for young viewers

Alex Schwartz, Columnist

A few months ago, I wrote about the importance of socially conscious children’s media. I particularly addressed how inclusive characters in media make children more aware and accepting of people different from them, and can ultimately lead to an increasingly better future. And just a few days ago, we’ve become one step closer to that, all thanks to a little Muppet named Julia.

In 2015, the popular children’s show “Sesame Street” announced it would be introducing a new character: Julia, an autistic preschooler. Julia has already appeared in some of the show’s apps, books and digital content, and earlier this week she starred in her first real TV episode, puppeteered by Stacey Gordon, the mother of an autistic child. The episode was titled “Meet Julia,” and it was incredibly well done.

The episode opens with a few characters — Elmo, Abby Cadabby, Julia and Alan, an adult human — finger painting. Alan explains to Elmo and Abby that Julia doesn’t like the feeling of paint on her fingers, which is why she’s using paintbrushes instead.

“There’s lots of ways to paint,” Alan adds.

Soon, Big Bird wanders over to the table and meets Julia for the first time. Immediately, he has trouble connecting with her because he is trying to interact with her as if she is neurotypical. Alan then explains to him that Julia has autism, and when Big Bird asks what that means, he begins his reply with, “For Julia …” In doing so, Sesame Street uses simple but effective dialogue to show young viewers that autism, as with most development differences, appears in different individuals in different ways.

Julia’s interactions with Big Bird mainly serve to young viewers that autistic people see the world a little differently than neurotypical people do. Big Bird is well-meaning — he wants to be friends with Julia despite the fact that she’s different — but he’s misguided. After he learns more about Julia, why she does things differently from everyone else and why that small difference is alright, he and Julia are finally able to connect and become friends.

Because Julia likes to bounce — stimming, a form of sensory stimulation that some autistic people use for comfort — she, Elmo and Abby play tag a bit differently from other kids but still have fun doing it. This is an important metaphor for how society should accept autistic people: not expecting them to conform to neurotypical culture, but rather adapting neurotypical culture to be more accepting toward them. Instead of trying to teach Julia the rules of the game of tag they would typically play, Abby and Elmo celebrate the new game Julia created.

The way “Sesame Street” frames autism is surprisingly rare in the media. Movies like “Rain Man” portray intelligence as rare in autistic people, when in reality many people with these developmental differences are of average or above-average intelligence. Neurotypical people tend to equate intelligence with humanistic value and productivity, therefore autistic people may be discriminated against as a result of this stigma. Television shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” reinforce stereotypes that autistic people, specifically people with Asperger syndrome, are emotionless and procedure-driven. Ultimately, previous examples of autistic characters in the media have been one-dimensional.

What’s different about “Sesame Street” is that it recognizes autistic people as individuals, unique in the ways their autism affects them and how they interact with the world. But at the same time, it teaches neurotypical viewers how to be accepting of anyone who doesn’t act the same way they do. Because just as there are lots of ways to paint (as Alan says), there are lots of ways to go through life.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.