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Autism Comes to "Sesame Street"



Lynn Dixon and her son Ted, who’s on the autism spectrum.

PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

When we first meet Julia, the newest Muppet on Sesame Street, she fails to say hello to Big Bird. Big Bird is hurt and confused until Elmo explains that Julia has autism and doesn’t always respond to people in expected ways.  

With this new insight, Big Bird is able to embrace Julia for who she is and decides to be her friend. By the end of the episode, Julia is just one of the gang.

This is “inclusion” in a nutshell — the full participation and acceptance of kids on the autism spectrum across all settings: at school, in the community and yes, on Sesame Street.  

Sadly, it’s harder to accomplish in real life than on TV.  

I know because I have a child on the spectrum. He’s in kindergarten, and already we’ve faced many impediments to inclusion, not the least of which is his own challenging behavior.  

Julia is cute. My son is cute. Autism itself is rarely cute.

Julia’s creators chose to give her a set of autistic traits — hand-flapping, word repetition and non-responsiveness — that I would place on the tamer end of the spectrum. She has a short-lived meltdown brought on by the sound of sirens.  She doesn’t kick anyone, scream insults or hurl objects — conduct that might also be a manifestation of autism, especially in young children who haven’t yet learned appropriate coping strategies.  

Don’t get me wrong. The fact that Julia exists at all is a huge leap forward in promoting awareness and acceptance of autism. No one puppet could possibly encompass such a broad and complex disorder. I can’t help but wonder though: If my own son stepped onto Sesame Street displaying his particular brand of autism, would he be as readily accepted?

Truthfully, kids on the spectrum often act in ways that are a major turn-off to their peers. These behaviors range from odd (Julia’s hand-flapping) to annoying (unwelcome touch, obnoxious noise-making) to inconsiderate (cutting in line, not sharing) to gross (mouthing objects, eating dirt) to outright aggression (shoving, hitting and lashing out verbally).  

My son exhibits many of these less-than-adorable behaviors. They’re usually not intentional; more likely a sign he’s overwhelmed or is struggling to communicate. This fact doesn’t make them any easier for other kids to swallow.

Children have been taught that certain behaviors are wrong, rude or bad. When they observe a child acting in these ways, they naturally conclude that he or she is wrong, rude or bad — and not someone they wish to be friends with.  Unfortunately, their parents often come to the same quick conclusion.  

This is where Elmo comes in.

When Elmo explains to Big Bird that Julia is responding a certain way because she has autism, he introduces the concept of neurodiversity: the idea that our brains are unique and cause us to think and act differently from one another.   

It’s a sophisticated idea for kids and even grown-ups. We prefer to think of behavior as the result of factors we can control, such as our own positive parental influence, rather than unseen neurological forces. 

Yet understanding neurodiversity is the key to acceptance. It provides a different lens through which to view a child’s behavior — not as a moral failing but a coping strategy for those underlying, neurologically based differences. Autism is not an excuse for bad behavior, but it provides critical context.  

I recently accompanied my son to a classmate’s birthday party. He rarely gets invited to parties, so when he does, we make a point of going. Inclusion takes practice — for kids on and off the spectrum.    

The party was going well enough until just after the piñata. This piñata, rather than being burst open with a bat, was calmly released with the pull of a string while remaining intact. The birthday girl evidently wanted to keep it as a souvenir — that is, until my son unexpectedly started tearing it to pieces.

Back at home, I emailed the girl’s mom to apologize. I explained that my son has autism and struggles with impulse control. I assured her that we’re working on helping him develop better self-management. I asked her to pass on my apologies to her daughter.

I quickly got an email back. The mom thanked me for my openness. She admitted that her daughter had been apprehensive of my son at first, but that after getting to know him better, she actually liked him.

I savored the word liked.

I want my son to be included, not just because it’s right and fair and politically correct, but because he has so much to offer — just like Julia.

Watch Sesame Street with your children. Introduce them to Julia and then explain that autism can look very different in different kids. Teach them about neurodiversity so that when they encounter my son, or a child like him, they can look beyond his behavior to the very likable child underneath.

Lynn Dixon resides in Ballard with her husband and two sons. You can read more of her adventures raising a child on the spectrum at somewhereoverthespectrum.org.

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