Written by Rose King

Voices

I don’t like Autism Speaks, but I love what’s happening with Sesame Street

Beloved by young and old alike, Sesame Street is a furred and feathered representation of real life. Rose King is quietly excited by the new autistic Muppet Julia, even if one of the partners used in creating this new character leaves her cold.

Julia the new Sesame Street characterAs an autistic person, I feel that Autism Speaks (one of the best-known US-based autism charities) does not speak for me. At all. In fact, I don’t feel that Autism Speaks should be considered a ‘charity’ at all. I see it more as a lynch mob in suits.

A charity’s remit is to support those it represents, but Autism Speaks does the exact opposite: its ill-disguised goal seems to be the eradication of autism. Autism Speaks regularly produces short films and other pieces of media portraying autism as a ‘burden’ to society. Autism Every Day featured a member of its board considering the murder/suicide of her daughter – while her daughter was there listening to her.

Then there’s the infamous I Am Autism advert, which described autism as a monster, a disease; an ominous voiceover says: “I am autism… I know where you live… I work faster than paediatric AIDS, cancer, and diabetes combined… I will make sure your marriage fails.”

As you can imagine, for an autistic person such as myself, this was a bit of a kick in the teeth.

However, Autism Speaks, along with several other bodies, has recently teamed up with Sesame Street to create new Muppet Julia, who is on the autistic spectrum. Sesame Street (and, of course, The Muppets) is a TV show that me and my siblings grew up watching. I admittedly still enjoy watching them today. Don’t judge me. One of my little brother’s favourite TV shows that he used to watch over and over again was Elmo’s World. We knew every episode of that show inside out.

“If the representation is positive, then children all over the world will grow up learning about and accepting autism as a positive thing.”

To be completely honest, I am not entirely sure how to feel about this new Muppet. Given its past participation in the media, I’d trust Autism Speaks to create a positive portrayal of an autistic person about as much as I’d trust Edward Scissorhands to give me a full-body massage. It is very possible that, despite any good intentions, this whole thing could turn into a catastrophe for everybody involved. Especially for young autists who would be subjected to such a negative representation from such a young age.

A mother of three autistic children has also stated that even if the project proves successful, some people may use the representation to bully and stigmatise autists even further. For example, calling us ‘muppets’ as an insult, in the same way that the term ‘special needs’ or simply ‘special’ is used now. She also stated that, although mainstream media representation of minorities is good, based on the grounds of respect, a Muppet perhaps isn’t the best way of portraying a person with a mental disability.

However, there are certainly positive aspects to what is happening, and it isn’t exactly hard to take an optimistic outlook on the whole thing. In fairness, I’d probably trust Sesame Street with my life. Though it could definitely be seen as a negative thing that autism is being portrayed as a Muppet, you can’t deny that the fact that it’s being shown in media directed at children is absolutely fantastic.

If the representation is positive (and so far, I think the way Julia’s character is being handled is amazing and a great way for neurotypical children to learn), then children all over the world will grow up learning about and accepting autism as a positive thing, which could stop lots of bullying among classmates and also stop young autists from feeling isolated.

Julia in an illustrated storyI also love that this new character is a girl. One of my main issues with autism representation in the media is that it generally sticks to the stereotype: a white male who wears glasses and knows a lot about trains and maths. It’s great that Sesame Street is willing to stray away from this to attempt to create a realistic and interesting autistic character.

Also, to my knowledge (correct me if I’m wrong) Sesame Street is yet to misrepresent a minority. For instance, unless you’ve been living under a rock your entire life you’ll know by now that Bert and Ernie are about as straight as a rainbow slinky. The vast majority of the people who watch Sesame Street generally accept that they were probably dating. But are there any crude or offensive jokes regarding them, or regarding same-sex couples in general? Nope.

Another fantastic thing that Sesame Street did recently was to pair up with respected actress Lupita Nyong’o to talk about skin colour. Watch the video and get ready to cry like a hungry, angry baby.

This is why, even though I distrust one of its partners in creating Julia, I trust Sesame Street with representing autism, and look forward to seeing Julia on the show.

Read more about Rose here.
Watch her awesome (and drily funny) TED talk here:

@indigocoil

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Written by Rose King

Rose King is 17 and in her second year at college. She is very passionate about human rights and does all she can to raise awareness for minority groups, particularly autism and disability rights. She also loves to read and write, especially comics and classic literature. She lives with her family in West Yorkshire.