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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One of these kids…: An autistic on Sesame Street

After 46 years, Sesame Workshop (formerly Children’s Television Workshop) are still trailblazing.

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Image imported from muppet.wikia.com based on their fair usage guidelines. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.