The buzz of the day in the world of autism, at least in the part of it that I inhabit, is Sesame Street. Yes. Sesame Street, the place of Big Bird, Cookie Monster, the adorable Elmo, and one of my all time favourites Snuffleuffagus.
Yes, that television program that feels, to me at least, to have always been there, morning and afternoon that song played and it was time for the letters and numbers of the day. It’s truly been perhaps the biggest success story of television.
The buzz is all centred around the newest member of the Sesame Street family, a new Muppet, Julia, who happens to be Autistic. Yes that’s right an Autistic Sesame Street Muppet. My newsfeed on Facebook is full of shares of this news, with comments ranging from wonderful, interesting, what on earth, and here we go again. You can
read about it on People here.
On the surface it would be easy to go all out about how wonderful this is or indeed to consider it mere tokenism. The truth is we won’t know until time has passed if this is a good thing or not.
I must admit I have not closely watched an episode of the show for a long time. But my gut response to this is that they will do a good job of making this a meaningful and helpful process in bringing acceptance to autistic people and autism as a neurological difference rather than a devastation, epidemic or catastrophe.
My thoughts here are, I admit, based on not much more than the recollections of what I saw each morning and afternoon that Sesame Street beamed its way into my lounge room. What I saw was a diverse range of people. Adults and kids of a range of racial and cultural backgrounds, men and women, adults and kids, all valued and given a voice. Not sidelined, silenced, or made to feel anything less than completely human.
Of course we will have to wait and see, the jury will be out of course until we see what happens, how Julia is integrated in the show, how her voice is respected, valued and allowed to flourish. It is my fervent hope that the portrayal of Julia is not influenced by the likes of Autism Speaks and the Anti-Vaccination conspiracy theory nut jobs. I hope that it does not succumb to the voice of the cure culture that would have us believe autism is a disorder and disease that must be, at all costs, cured and eradicated.
Of course I have reservations and concerns. Concerns that this will be another experience where the #ActuallyAutistic voices are not valued, listened to and heeded. Where the language used allows the narrative of negativity to thrive and so perpetuate the catastrophe, epidemic and whichever other emotive adjective of the day is used to thrive.
So far I see a genuine attempt to highlight that being autistic is a life of difference, and not a life of less. I have seen a genuine desire here to integrate this difference into the Sesame Street landscape as simply an alternative way of being human. Granted, I would have like to see Identity First language embrace rather than the ubiquitous
Person First language, however this does not mean that good things will not be done.
A question I do have, something I am not clear about is whether Julia will be a feature only in the digital content of Sesame Street or in also in the regular television production. In the people.com article it is mentioned that Julia is digitally created, and deliberately so. I do believe for this to be a truly genuine embrace of Autism and Autistics as difference and diversity then Julia needs to be a feature across the Sesame Street landscape and not only on the online landscape.
I am interested and somewhat positive about the future of this. We have seen that education is a pivotal part of changing societal attitudes. If it were not for education about alternative ways of being then we may still call homosexuality a disorder and certainly marriage equality would not be something that has come a reality in many places around the world.
I wonder what others thoughts about this are. Please comment and share.