Sesame Street launches new muppet with autism

Play time: On April 10th, Julia will become the first new muppet on Sesame Street for a decade.

Sesame Street’s newest resident, Julia, has a toy rabbit, orange hair, and autism. Her creators hope she will teach kids about the condition. What is it, and how should we think about it?

There’s a new girl on Sesame Street. She’s good at drawing, she jumps up and down when she’s excited, and when Big Bird introduces himself, she ignores him. The fuzzy yellow fellow is confused. Doesn’t she like him? But the other characters explain: Julia has autism. That means: “She does things just a little differently.”

The iconic children’s show has been thinking about introducing an autistic character for a few years. Its creators finally announced her arrival this week, and she will make her first appearance in April. Creating the character was “tricky” says the writer Christine Ferraro, because autism is “different for every single person”. But they hope that Julia will help children to understand more about the condition.

Julia’s puppeteer, Stacey Gordon, has an autistic son of her own. She says she wishes something similar had been around before he had started school, so that his friends “would have known that he plays in a different way, and that that’s OK”.

Autism is a lifelong condition that can affect how people see the world and interact with others. It is a spectrum, meaning that it affects people differently — but common features include struggling with communication, relying on routines, and having highly focused interests.

In his book Neurotribes, the writer Steve Silberman tracks the condition’s history and argues that autistic people have played a large role in shaping society, particularly in areas like science and technology.

In fact, many “have grown up to become the architects of our future.” he says.

This view is advocated by a movement known as “neurodiversity”. Its advocates argue that autistic brains should not be seen as “wrong” — just different.

“Those differences carry with them gift and disability,” explains John Elder Robison, an autistic writer. “Society needs the exceptional thinkers that the neurodiversity world produces.”

Street wise

Neurodiversity has been described as a new civil rights movement. Some autistic people are proud of their diagnosis and the unusual ways that they see the world; they argue that rather than thinking of autism as “not normal”, society should respect all different types of brains. Silberman compares this to a computer: just because it “is not running Windows does not mean it’s broken”.

But others are more cautious. Neurodiversity asks people to stop thinking of autism in medical terms. But some fear that this glosses over the fact that autism can make life very hard for people and their loved ones. It is not all maths geniuses, after all. Often day-to-day living can be impossible without constant care. For those families, medical research into causes and cures is a vital source of hope.

You Decide

  1. Will Julia help children to understand autism better?
  2. Should society think of autism as a medical condition?

Activities

  1. As a class, write down all of the facts and stereotypes you can remember hearing about autism. Divide into groups and research whether they are true — then report back to the class.
  2. Create a pamphlet which explains autism to primary school children. Include a section on how to interact with people who have autism.

Some People Say...

“It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a child with autism to raise the consciousness of the village.”

Elaine Hall

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Around one in 68 children are diagnosed with autism in the USA. Brain scans show that people with autism have brains that work differently to others. Some genetic differences have also been found, but none that are shared between everyone who has autism.
What don’t we know?
A lot — including what causes autism, whether there will ever be a cure, and exactly how to define the different types of autism. However, the idea that it is caused by vaccinations has been discredited by most scientists.
What do people believe?
Scientists think that autism is probably several conditions with similar symptoms, which is why no single cause or genetic difference has been found yet. Some neurodiversity advocates think that there is no “normal” brain; autism is one of many ways of being.

Word Watch

Sesame Street
Created by Children’s Television Workshop and using Jim Henson’s Muppets (originally created in 1955), it first aired in 1969, it is shown on the US government-funded channel PBS, with its first run moving to the commercial HBO last year.
School
In 2011, research by the National Autism Society in Britain found that one in three children with autism say that the worst thing about school is being picked on.
Communication
For some, this means difficulty understanding body language. For others, it means being entirely non-verbal; everyone is different.
Neurotribes
Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity published by Avery in 2015; won the Samuel Johnson Prize, awarded for English non-fiction.
History
Hans Asperger first discovered autism in the 1930s, describing it in broad terms. In the 1940s, Leo Kanner offered a more restricted definition, attributing it to parents. The condition was re-examined in the 1980s and 90s and became better-known leading to a surge in diagnoses.
Cures
None has been found, and scientists disagree on their possibility.

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