An Autistic on Sesame Street Part 2: In the Flesh

Julia has arrived – and she’s in the flesh!

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Image not owned by me – for educational and informative purposes only.

Longstanding readers of this blog will remember my flight of nostalgia in October 2015 when it was announced that a character called Julia who has autism was being introduced into the Sesame Street franchise. Those who don’t can read it here.

But now Julia is no longer confined to the ‘printed’ medium. No longer simply the stuff of PDF literature, she made her full debut on the long-running children’s series (48 years and counting) on April 10th 2017 (yesterday as I type this) as a fully fledged autistic muppet (perhaps I should rename this blog).

Here in the jolly old OK it hasn’t proved possible to watch the entire episode but a ten minute clip has been made available on Sesame Street’s official YouTube channel – you can watch it here.

So – what are my thoughts? I can only engage in a conversation with myself 18 months ago when I first ruminated on the character and how she might manifest if moved to the physical medium.

AUTISTIC HERMIT 2015: I mean getting a human actor to portray an autistic/Aspie character is simple enough… 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.

AUTISTIC HERMIT 2017: Wow she does put her hands on her head – check out how the siren from a passing emergency vehicle gets her going. I don’t remember being bugged by those myself but it’s clearly part of the overload for her and wow this muppet can actually move her hands – I don’t recall Kermit or Miss Piggy ever doing that.

AH 2015: Aside from being difficult to operate such a puppet, Sesame Workshop would probably get done for discrimination before you could say “Me love cookies!”.

AH 2017: Well she’s met Big Bird already. Let’s hope it’s only a matter of time before she starts aping Cookie Monster although this could set a bad example to young viewers…

AH 2015: 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.

AH 2017: Well hey now we’ve had the Big Bird bewilderment but he doesn’t take long to get used to the newcomer. Oscar meets Julia… now that I would love to see!

But even today I have my reservations. In my day we had to learn to fit in. Not to the point of doing things we didn’t want to but just in realising that we couldn’t always propose or set the terms of the activity we were trying to participate in or initiate and that we would likely end up loners if we did. Just because Julia does ‘boing boing’ doesn’t mean everybody else is obliged to play tag the same way. Do we want autistic kids to get the idea that they are entitled to set the corporate pace wherever they go? Also there are health and safety considerations – if they really want to be gritty and realistic they’ll have to have Julia lacking co-ordination and spatial awareness and bouncing straight into another player, but I don’t think they’ve quite got round to giving muppets the capacity for tears and nosebleeds just yet.

But this middle-aged cynicism aside, I do applaud the way in which professional psychologists and the like have been consulted in the development of the character and the lady who created and operates the puppet has a son with autism who has seemingly no objection at all to the character and is even seen to give the puppet a cuddle almost as if she calms him like Julia’s toy rabbit Fluffster. I can’t seem to find the link right now despite having watched it only fifteen minutes ago. I guess this is what they call impaired executive function.

Right – I’m going to paint an 11…

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