After 46 years, Sesame Workshop (formerly Children’s Television Workshop) are still trailblazing.
In 1976, folksinger turned Sesame Street resident Buffy Sainte-Marie broke barriers by breastfeeding her baby on this prime time children’s show and even explaining the process to the ever-innocent Big Bird.
In 1983, the producers of the same show took the risk of dealing with death head on for the under-fives. Actor Will Lee who had played elderly shopkeeper Mr Hooper had passed away – the producers decided not to beat about the bush, scrapped the planned “he moved away” plot element and instead had the same Big Bird (their flagship character in those pre-Elmo days) learning the hard way that death happens and having his good blub some months after the characters who are patiently having to explain that the dead do not come back and that “It has to be this way… because. Just because.”
Around the same time, across the Atlantic, a nine-year old Aspie has been treated to a television in his bedroom (somewhat spoilt by the standards of the time). But now he can watch pretty much anything pre-watershed without eliciting negative comment. While learning at Year 4 level at school, there’s no harm in the Aspie recapping on some earlier basics with a bit of televised juvenilia.
My mother had effectively raised me in the habit of watching the BBC shows, usually only switching to ITV for Magpie and The Tomorrow People.
Now I was alone up in my room with a small portable TV and discovering the delights of Sesame Street.
Within a year I was trying to dragoon my cousin into “looking for the letter A”. He was more into stuff like The Fall Guy and was nonplussed but I loved the way this programme would single out two letters and a number every edition and celebrate them be it with the Pinball Number Count sung by the Pointer Sisters or just the goofy guy with his tin of paint announcing “I’m going to paint a 7” and doing so on anyone or anything that moved and a moment later remarking “Now where’s my 7?”
Ernie and Bert were fun too, though whether Ernie with his permanent state of juvenility or Bert with his emotionless response to everything except pigeon-spotting is the more autistic character is open to debate.
When my Year 5 teacher seemed to be finding my learning curve hard to cope with and I was staring in horror at some new concept I was expected to master, I could only ape the frustrated composer Don Music, bury my head in the desk and moan “Oh I’ll NEVER get this done.”
And of course in those days they had that odd one out game where you’d see three kids bouncing balls and another just swinging a bat and the singer announced that “One of these kids is doing his own thing”.
Doing my own thing.
I’m still the same today.
Not that everyone doing something automatically makes me not want to do it but one reason I’ve rarely hung out in gangs of friends is the fact that if an activity takes my fancy that’s not one that takes everyone else’s fancy then I’m off to do my own thing and I’ll catch you all later for a drink perhaps.
With all this in mind, imagine my smile when I caught the news that the team behind Sesame Street are introducing an autistic character.
She’s a female muppet called Julia but she’s a muppet who ain’t a puppet as she’ll only appear in the franchise’s digital fiction. The Sesame Workshop say this is because autistic kids relate well to digital media but there’s another advantage too that they don’t seem to have mentioned.
I mean getting a human actor to portray an autistic/Aspie character is simple enough – I’ve seen it done very well, most notably the Karla Bentham character in Waterloo Road back when that now-defunct series was a bit more believable than it became later on. But you try creating a puppet that acts like an autistic stereotype with lips fixed firmly and expressionlessly together and puts clenched fists on the side of its head and pulls its jacket over itself when the verbal taunts get too much etc etc. Aside from being difficult to operate such a puppet, Sesame Workshop would probably get done for discrimination before you could say “Me love cookies!”.
What’s also a pity is that everything is now seen through the sanitised eyes of Elmo, who simply has daddy explain to him that Julia has autism. Personally I would have loved to see a little Big Bird bewilderment or Oscar having a grouch about this incomprehensible newcomer – this could really speak to how we often are out in reality where not everything’s A okay.
Also when depicting autism in fictional media, one has to bear in mind two things:
- The same signs of autism will not be present in everybody with an autistic diagnosis. In my time I have met Aspies who could learn to drive, get decent, meaningful work and (in my case) get metaphor.
- Some signs will iron out with time. I’ve seen a picture of this new character covering her ears at the sound of the blender – a neurosis I’d conquered by the age of eleven but more of that another time.
But overall I can only applaud Sesame Workshop for this move. A reading with mama session with no eyes glued to a screen is a wonderful stimulus for discussion – something no doubt NT kids will need to engage in with adults as they encounter us Aspies etc along the way.