An Autistic on Sesame Street Part 2: In the Flesh

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

ot-sesamestreetl.jpg

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…

“I’m not so self assured” or “All my troubles seemed so far away” – my troubled early adolescence and the Beatles’ music.

Music therapy is a big thing today. Part of me thinks if only they’d had it readily available in my youth but then I remember how much harder I found it to open up and be myself when forced to lay my emotions bare in other kinds of therapy.

IntroducingtheBeatles.jpgR-1581649-1402390216-4236.jpeg.jpg

I made my own music therapy. I found I could think and express myself far more clearly with a lyric or two to identify with. Oh sure we all have to some extent. Who hasn’t found a love song to sigh along to with those early crushes. But let me give you a timeline.

I had always appreciated music. I had been exposed to folk music at an early age courtesy of an aunt and uncle with guitars and always enjoyed the records my mother got from the library of songs like Old Daddy Fox and Peri Meri Dixi Domini (google them) considerably more than the stuff like The Wheels on the Bus and I’m A Little Teapot that were supposedly the height of excitement and intellect for the average child of my age. With books it was the other way round – I never really stayed deeply into them after I got past the age of having illustrations to guide me but that’s another story.

When I was five my mother bought me a Beatles record – a rare pressing of their first American album (the same as the first British one but minus two tracks) that just happened to be in our supermarket. I liked it so much that she got me another – a compilation only available on the European continent where we were living at the time (sadly lost in a house move a few years later). I loved that so much that she bought me a songbook. All in alphabetical order, no discography or guide to that strange eight year journey through their recording career. But we sang Yesterday, Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da and When I’m Sixty-Four at school, a kindly great aunt gave me the Yellow Submarine album one Christmas and somehow I knew there was so much more to these four guys.

 

TheBeatles-YellowSubmarinealbumcover.jpg51qV+LS2ufL._SX384_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

In the summer between Junior and Senior Schools I felt the need for a trip down memory lane to a safer place. I didn’t get kicks out of watching The A-Team and didn’t have the co-ordination for break dancing or doing wheelies on a BMX. My beloved Doctor Who had had an 18-month hiatus imposed on it by the then controller of BBC1 and there was a bit of a vacuum. I had spent the summer before buying five-year old books with my pocket money to try and get the ghost of infanthood laid (and complete my collections) before I had to go to secondary and be all intellectual (I thought) and the mental erosion from this episode was noticeable – I was studious enough at school but at home my mind was full of which members of the Munch Bunch lived in flowerpots and next door to whom etc etc. Now one year on, once again I needed a safe familiar place – one that wouldn’t have anyone saying “Isn’t that a bit young for you?” As end of term tension simmered while we worked on the end of year play (I only had a small chorus role) I found my mind drifting to what little music I had in my personal collection at the time – bits of classical, some French chanson my mother had tried to turn me onto and… the Beatles.

I had a record token left over from Christmas and after an exhausting week at an activity centre where they thought the height of excitement was to spray you with string or push you into the pool, I decided to get a Beatles record. And I did… it was called A Collection of Beatles Oldies and collected so many songs I already knew from the lost compilation along with gems like Paperback Writer which I’d heard my father singing round the house on occasion and Michelle which I absolutely fell in love with (partly cos I had a crush on the Michelle Fowler character in Eastenders).

180px-Acollectionofbeatlesoldiescover.jpg

Soon I could talk of little else. I got a second hand single with the two tracks missing from the American album I’d had and bought second hand singles and rereleased EPs whenever I could. My uncle put loads of his Beatles vinyl on tape for my twelfth birthday and for Christmas. One guy at school even gave me a compilation tape he’d nicked off his brother (Rock n Roll Music Volume 2) – not often I’ve been guilty of receiving stolen goods but hey I was only 11.

This influx was to prove fortuitous, for the transition to secondary school, although initially it gave me a thrill to have different teachers for different subjects and a homework diary, proved very difficult. Although it was merely the secondary department of the same school where I had spent my primary years, the major influx of new pupils couldn’t get their head round me and my ‘differences’ and it didn’t take long for the taunting to begin. I reacted by shouting and yelling a lot and it wasn’t long before there was a concerned phone call to my parents who were duly summoned in and told I was to see the school shrink. It also didn’t help that the staff at the railway station, who had perceived inappropriate and potentially hazardous behaviour from this strange youngster had spoken to my school who had in turn written to my parents thus causing them (and me) even more distress. Well heck no-one told me you had to keep back from the platform edge even when there wasn’t a yellow line! One of the railwaymen had clearly got on the train and followed me as there was also a report of “embarrassing other commuters by pulling non-existent threads out of their conversations” rather an exaggeration as although I found myself being befriended or addressed by other commuters, ranging from old ladies to college students, who saw me wandering up and down the corridor looking for the perfectly positioned seat, I didn’t usually butt in on conversations between perfect strangers.

Suddenly I had become a problem case – one of the “bad boys”, receiving treatment I thought only juvenile delinquents got. Suddenly, Lennon-McCartney lyrics that had just started to become meaningful became much more so. Songs like Help! and Yesterday, both quoted in the title of this piece (though I turn my nose up at the latter nowadays), were my real therapy. It really had become the case that I was not so self-assured, my independence was vanishing in the haze life was no longer an easy game and I needed a place to hide. Written by John and Paul respectively – Paul the promising student, John the rebel constantly marked down for insolence etc. Previously I had polarised everybody as either Menaces or Softies thanks to my love of Dennis the Menace and other strips in the Beano where the bullies and the wimps were polarised (today’s autistic kids seem to do the same with Perfect Pete and Horrid Henry). Now I saw that in real life there was no need – the rebel and the student had formed the most popular band of all time together and written two equally vulnerable lyrics. You didn’t need to be plonked in front of a psychoanalyst to “talk about your feelings” as I had been on and off in those pre-diagnostic days when the then powers that be thought my problems were likely to be purely emotional. All you needed was a record and singers and writers who felt the same way and had committed it to plastic with a little help from their guitars.

And if I needed a stroll back to childhood innocence again then I could do it without the aid of the Munch Bunch or other juvenilia – all I needed was to listen to something like the White Album where a psychotic suicidal song like John Lennon’s Yer Blues sat snugly between Paul McCartney’s more all-age friendly Birthday and Mother Nature’s Son. A pop/rock song took about as long to listen to as a children’s picture book being narrated, was just as entertaining and nobody could accuse you of being juvenile for liking it. The TV series The Rock n Roll Years opened your mind up to the political unrest going on at the time and to other music too so all in all I was enjoying innocence and experience all in one.

The year got better as it went along. Although it took time to learn the difference between me misbehaving and others misbehaving (they weren’t having to see the shrink!), the letter home which had caused such hurt was burnt up and washed down the sink by my mother who had sensed my ongoing distress and need for full closure. I even became the notorious Beatle freak of the class – when our music teacher announced that her Beatles songbook had gone missing there was a cry of “Give it back Stobart!” from across the room. Surprisingly enough, I knew it was only a joke.

There were more adventures to come and rock would be there throughout them all, defining and shaping my worldview, giving me an outlet where previously there had been little and an escape route that no-one could deny me.

More to follow soon…