Content Note: Lack of agency, negative media representation, Autism Speaks
Image Description: “Autism” in brightly-coloured, block letters against a black background.
I finally watched the videos that “Sesame Street” has released about Julia, the autistic Muppet. And I like them.
Julia, who is supposed to be four-and-a-half, has actually been in development since 2015. She started as a storybook character, and a lot of work went into deciding how she’d be depicted as an autistic child on the “Sesame Street” program, including consultation with several high-profile autistic advocacy groups.
I think that the most important (and useful, as far as “Sesame Street” is concerned) reactions to Julia are those of autistic community. Being neurotypical, I can’t comment from that perspective, nor do I want to try. It did occur to me, though, that I can comment on her in a couple of other ways: I’m a person with education about autism and experience as as a support worker with autistic people in both the social services and education systems, I have a working understanding of the issues involved in how disabled people are depicted in the media, and I’m disabled myself.
Sunny Days, Sweeping The Clouds Away…
I expected all these voices to kind of “kick in” when I was watching the vignette when Julia and Abby Cadabby sing together. But when I watched the vignette, I just sat there and smiled. And I cried a bit.
Image Description: Video is stopped at scene with two puppets. One, Julia, is a “human” muppet with yellow skin, carrot-coloured hair cut in a bob, and 4 fingers on each hand. She wears a dark pink dress with light pink sleeves and holds a battered stuffed bunny. The other puppet, Abby Caddaby, is a “fairy” muppet. Her fur is pink and she has pink and purple pigtails. She wears a blue sundress. In the left bottom corner, there is a red bar with “Songs” written in white capital letters, and a red square with white joined eighth notes in it directly above. Viewers can click a white arrow in the middle of the picture to hear the puppets sing.
I didn’t notice (as I would in repeated viewings) that Julia doesn’t verbally acknowledge Abby when she first approaches and says very little to her during the video, that she makes limited eye contact and appears more interested in her doll and her singing than she does in being friends.
I really just did see two little girls (realizing later that Abby is a “fairy” Muppet; she has wings on her back and can fly) interacting…one maybe a bit shyer than the other…but they both like to sing and they seem to like being around each other. The moment where Julia offers her doll, Fluffster, and Abby kisses it is truly lovely. Is there a bigger gesture of trust at four-and-a-half than offering your favourite doll to a friend, and a more loving acknowledgement of how sacred that offering is than a gentle kiss on its head?
Julia and “Pure Moments”
I saw this same sort of “pure moment” quality in all the Julia vignettes. And while I know that these moments are highly idealized, I think that they’re perfect for “Sesame Street”, considering the target age group. If Julia can help children to enter school realizing that peers who exhibit behaviours associated with autism, like hand-flapping and anxiety about loud noise and a tendency not to make eye contact, aren’t threatening or scary, and that autistic children just want to play and have friends like everyone else, then her presence on “Sesame Street” will have been a blessing beyond words.
As a person who has worked with so many disabled teens and adults on bullying issues, that pure moment of friendship between Julia and Abby, a young child who would be traditionally viewed as disabled and a non-disabled peer, was exactly what I hoped for from Julia’s introduction to “Sesame Street”. And from a media depiction standpoint, I love that the interaction between Julia and Abby (and the interactions in the other vignettes) are unmediated by adults in the background explaining, “Well, Julia has autism, and that means that sometimes she may not say hello when you say hello to her…”
Not that there isn’t more initial explanation about Julia being autistic; there does appear to be on-set dialogue between the characters in Julia’s first episode about how she has autism (the person-first phrasing being what “Sesame Street” chose for its autism initiative) and why being autistic might cause her to behave in unexpected ways. However, it appears that the other “Sesame Street” characters mainly learn about Julia through their personal interactions with her, which always come back to message that even though playing with her may be a little different than playing with other children, they can still be friends and do the things they enjoy together:
“We can play side-by-side like we do sometimes. There’s lots of ways friends can play together!” Elmo says in one vignette where the two play with their dolls.
“It’s nice to sing songs with a friend,” he says in another.
“See that? We helped each other, Julia. And that’s what friends are for!” Abby says when the two girls are blowing bubbles together.
Criticisms of Julia
As always happens with any sort of disability-related initiative, not everyone is totally happy with Julia. In comments on the video vignettes, people seem concerned either that she’s too stereotypically autistic or doesn’t seem autistic at all based on her behaviour, and that people won’t know from seeing her that autism is a spectrum disorder. Julia’s creators addressed those concerns in this video:
Image Description: A red-headed woman operates the Julia puppet and a man in glasses and a baseball cap operates the Elmo puppet while a third man with a beard looks on.
“Sesame Street” writer Christine Ferraro says:
“In writing Julia for her ‘Sesame Street’ episode, the big question was, ‘What do we talk about?’ Because with autism it’s such a range, and there’s so many different ways that autism affects people, and there’s no way that we could possibly show everything. There’s no way that we could be symbolic of every kid that’s out there. So we had to pick one lane and go in it, and when we talk about it on the show, um, when Big Bird asks Alan, ‘What’s autism?’, Alan answers, ‘Well, for Julia it’s this,” and that’s what’s important.”
Writer Sarah Kurchak also brings up some issues about Julia that need addressing: the use of person-first language, the fact that “Sesame Street” characters (Muppet and adult) tend to speak for her and around her instead of letting her express her feelings, and the fact that her resource materials on the “Sesame Street” website haven’t been changed much since 2015. Julia is quite expressive as she is, but it will be interesting to see whether “Sesame Street” decides to explore assistive communication as part of her character development.
I also share Kurchak’s concerns that Autism Speaks was one of the organizations consulted as “Sesame Street” developed Julia’s (although I’ll rest a little easier knowing that the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, an organization in which I have a great deal of trust and confidence, was also involved.)
Julia and The Power of Seeing Yourself Depicted in Media
Kurchak’s overall impression of Julia, however, echos that of most of the commenters on the YouTube videos: autistic people and their families, many of whom grew up watching “Sesame Street”, who wish that that Julia had been on the show when they were in school. She’s already clearly bringing joy to people who have long wished for more positive media portrayals of autistic people, especially for young children, both to raise awareness and to make autistic children and youth feel a little less alone as they grow up in a society where they’re often misunderstood.
I find Julia delightful. But what I think about her doesn’t matter, ultimately. As I said earlier, the most important reactions to her are those of autistic people — I will be listening carefully over the next little while to hear what they are, and I look forward to Julia’s April 10th arrival on “Sesame Street”.