Everyone might be tired of hearing about Sesame Street’s new autistic muppet by the time I post this, but before I wrote up a full review I had to make my way through all of the materials at the “Sesame Street and Autism” site. I watched all of the videos, either when the kids weren’t around or with headphones while they were otherwise occupied, because I wanted to screen them first before I let them view of it – and, yes, it is weird to have to screen Sesame Street, of all things, for harmful messaging, but such is the state of the mainstream dialogue on autism that I knew there were likely to be some things I would not want my kids to see or hear. And there were.
What is Sesame Street and Autism?
First, a brief explanation of what Sesame Street and Autism is and isn’t. There’s been a lot of hype about Julia, the new autistic muppet as I call her and “muppet with autism” as most of the press does. However, there is no actual muppet. There is one storybook, told from Elmo’s point of view, about a cartoon muppet named Julia. The rest of the site is “Resources for Parents,” which include: 10 videos – I would say 5 were mostly or sort of geared toward children, 5 geared toward parents, ALL geared toward neurotypical viewers; some short articles – 5 out of 6 are for parents, the 6th is for neurotypical children; and Daily Routine Cards, which are like short social stories, that could work for any child.
There is no balanced view of prejudice
For this project, Sesame Street gathered input from a couple of good sources, including ASAN (Autistic Self Advocacy Network) and Boycott Autism Speaks, and some ableist sources, which I prefer not to name because I find that the mere mention of them always derails the Sesame Street discussion into “but why don’t you like them?” and it’s not what I want to talk about here.
The problem for me with this project is that you can’t “balance” autism acceptance and positivity with ableism. The ableism corrupts the message of acceptance and makes it unusable at best, and counterproductive at worst.
Lost opportunity to do good
It’s sad because I really wanted to like it. I think having an autistic muppet IS a good idea and could have been awesome if done well. It would have been great if Julia was a real, felt-covered muppet, was part of the regular cast, and was the protagonist in her own story. It would have been great if she was fully incorporated into the show as just another character.
It would also have been great to do some of the live action videos about autistic kids, if the kids had been allowed to tell their own stories and interact with other kids and/or muppets on their own terms. It’s true that for this age range, there are many autistic kid who can’t yet tell their stories either by talking or by AAC (augmentative and alternative communication), but Sesame Street has always been able to work with typical preschoolers who don’t talk that much yet, so they know how to do this. There is no reason they could not do this with autistic preschoolers besides ableism.
It’s sad because there is a need for children to hear more about being autistic, inclusion, and making friends with people who aren’t like you. There is a need for more representation of autistic people in media and especially in kids’ media, because I would love for this generation of autistic kids to grow up feeling like they are accepted and part of the picture. (I love the Junot Diaz quote about reflection: “if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”) I would have loved to be able to show my kids a good Sesame Street video about being autistic, but it’s not here.
Where they went wrong: a breakdown
As I said, I watched all the videos and read all of the articles and looked at a few of the Daily Routine Cards on the Sesame Street site. Throughout all of their material, they use “person first language” or PFL (person with autism, so-and-so has autism) rather than “identity first language” or IFL (autistic person, so-and-so is autistic) despite the fact that most autistic people prefer IFL. With that, they didn’t even attempt balance. PFL happens to be a total deal breaker for me. I can’t imagine ever telling my kids that I have autism or you have autism, because in that language, it sounds like I have a disease or a disorder, which I do not. I am autistic, which is the way I am and the way I experience the world.
Even if I could swallow PFL, there was plenty else that bothered me throughout the Sesame Street site. I’m going piece by piece to explain exactly what the problems are because I know that the uninitiated might not see what is “wrong” with this stuff at first glance, but I hope that if you are one of those, after reading this you’ll consider another point of view.
The Amazing Song
“The Amazing Song” was all right, and one of the few things on the site that I put in the “would show my kids” category. It wasn’t great but it wasn’t terrible, which is the highest praise I can give anything here. I love the footage of happy flapping autistic kids and the message that “we are all just kids and we all want to play.” The message of othering is not as prominent here but it’s still present in the lyrics “it’s harder to reach out as others do/ but when you just look closer you’ll see amazingness show through.” Whose point of view does this represent? In the second line it’s clearly the neurotypical person as the default narrator, just as it is in ALL of the material on Sesame Street. Even this song speaks to neurotypical children as the default audience and excludes autistic children. Bummer.
We’re Amazing 1,2,3
This digital storybook is the only place where Julia the autistic muppet appears, as a cartoon drawing. And yet, the book is told entirely from Elmo’s point of view, as he explains the things that Julia does and feels. Given the creative freedom of a fictional cartoon storybook, how is it that even in this format the autistic person can not be the narrator of their own story? Sure, most children are not autistic, but is that a good reason to sideline autistic children into always being the object of the story and never the subject? Sesame Street could, and really really should, do better than that.
Benny’s Story is a short cartoon and it is just okay. Aside from using PFL, it uses some positive language about being autistic. But Benny is really separate from the other kids and is never shown belonging to the group. It’s true that autistic kids like playing alone sometimes, but what about when they don’t? This video seems to emphasize being different a little too much. However, it is the ONE video told from an autistic point of view, albeit an autistic cartoon resembling a clothespin with a face. So, there’s that.
This live action video about an 8 year old named Thomas had some great moments – showing how Thomas appreciates the little details of his environment, showing him using AAC to communicate, showing how he uses a service animal on outings.
But the bad moments were really bad, and I think are likely to trigger PTSD in some autistic adults who might watch this video. The worst bits were when Thomas’s dad keeps yanking him down by a leash at his waist when Thomas gets excited around the Abby muppet – I think this leash’s main purpose is to keep Thomas connected to his service dog, but the dad uses it for unnecessary restraints and that’s disturbing. Can you imagine a Sesame Street video where a parent claps his hand over his child’s mouth when the child starts speaking too loudly? – that’s more or less the equivalent of what Thomas’s dad does to forcefully quiet Thomas’s body language. After that, Thomas’s dad corrects how Thomas hugs Abby by taking his arms and moving them to do a hug the “right” way, which is also just yuck. And I wasn’t crazy about having the camera intrude on Thomas’s alone time when he said he needed a break.
But the larger problem with Thomas’s story is that it is told about Thomas by neurotypical people (and muppet). It’s very othering. Thomas has the ability to communicate through AAC; at the end of the video he gets a chance to chat with the muppet Abby, and he has a little back and forth with her. This could have been the main narrative, and should have.
A Sibling Story
Aagh! I just about jumping out of my skin seeing Yusenia’s sisters help physically restrain her so that her parents could brush her teeth and hair. Later in the video we see Jaslyn, one of the sisters, prompt Yusenia to stay calm when she excitedly goes to hug Abby the muppet. This video was aimed at kids but I would never it show it to mine, or really, anyone. Coercion and physical force are not normal parts of an autistic kid’s life.
Being a Supportive Parent
A video aimed at parents, this one featured Yusenia’s dad talking about supporting his wife because in raising an autistic child, “there’s probably not a day that’s not stressful.” (As opposed to life raising typical children, which is nothing but unicorn farts and rainbows from sunup to sundown, right?) The worst part of this one was when they showed footage of a very unhappy looking Yusenia at her 6th birthday party, the first year when she was able to blow out her birthday candle, after years of therapy. The dad is crying as he recounts this milestone, describing her as “typical fingers in her ears, zoning things out,” concluding with “it took her six years of her life to blow out a candle,” which is so dismissive and self-centered and, honestly, anti-autistic, that I just… You know, Yusenia is not sticking her fingers in her ears to ruin YOUR experience of her birthday party, dad, she is doing it to cope with the noise and basically put up with everyone else imposing their preferences on hers, so, get a clue.
Family and Friends
Family and Friends is a story geared toward parents and told by two women who have been friends for years, and now have kids who play together all the time. One of the kids is autistic. I would probably show this to an adult neurotypical friend. It was not terrible and I liked some of the one mom’s statements about battling stigma: “I don’t want to ‘sell’ him to anybody, like, ‘he’s autistic, but….'” Still, given that Louie can be heard conversing with various people in the background of the video, I do not understand why he wasn’t allowed to tell any of his own story. It would have been great to hear a 6 year old autistic boy tell us about his life and his friendships, but as far as I can tell, he wasn’t even asked.
This video about a 4 year old autistic kid could probably make my “would show the kids” list but I would have to explain to them that, no, Nasaiah does NOT have to learn to look people in the eye. (Eye contact is a neurotypical social convention but if it makes a child uncomfortable, he should not have to do it any more than wheelchair users should have to “learn” to climb the stairs on foot.) Other than that this was pretty cute and I loved his singing clip with Abby in the end. More like that, please!
Meeting Unique Needs
Here Nasaiah’s mom just talks about her frustrations in raising an autistic kid. Bummer, they seemed nice in the other one. I did not need to see this.
Family Time with Grover
This video was just so odd, I don’t know how to describe it. A lot of it is video of Grover with twin autistic boys and their older neurotypical sister, but that’s intercut with the parents talking about their kids and their parenting strategies, so I don’t know if it’s for kids or for parents. It wasn’t horrible but it was just more of talking ABOUT autistic kids rather than WITH them.
A Parent’s Role
This is a CLASSIC parent complaining video. It’s all about Dad and how hard his life is. “The challenges for me… You don’t get to do what other dads do… [Louie] doesn’t say I love you… It’s tough handling the stress… It’s very stressful and draining on [my wife]…” And then he ends with “it’s been a blessing.”
I’m going to say something I know is controversial, but parents’ complaints about how hard it is to raise an autistic child do NOT need to always be shown. They don’t need to be part of every conversation about being autistic. Parenting is hard sometimes, yes. But this narrative of suffering only strengthens the stigma that autistic people face in the world. It helps NO ONE. Not even the person complaining. And certainly not their child.
Can you imagine Sesame Street making videos of parents of typical children complaining about how difficult it is to raise their kids? Can you imagine Sesame Street doing this with parents of kids with other disabilities? Somehow it is unique to autism that the “parents’ lives are hard” story must ALWAYS be included. It really does not have to be included. There is a time and place to talk about how hard parenting your autistic kids can be, and it’s the same place you talk about how hard parenting your typical kids can be, how hard your marriage can be, how hard your friendships can be – privately, with trusted friends and family.
There were 6 short informational articles, 5 of them for adults, all of them for neurotypical people about how to interact with autistic children and/or their parents. “Being a Friend” for kids was pretty nice but it was totally geared toward neurotypical kids. There is NOTHING here for autistic kids. They are just erased. This tells me that Sesame Street does not think their feelings and experiences really matter. They never do tell their own stories and they never are addressed directly by the materials here. It’s all about autistic kids, but it’s not for them.
Daily Routine Cards
Slightly misnamed, these are short social stories about everyday tasks like getting ready in the morning and crossing the street. They work for any young child as reminders and/or “what to expect” stories. They’re the only thing here that actually include autistic children as the part of the audience. So… meh.
The Bad Outweighs the Good
I’m an idealist but I do have a pragmatic streak. I know that massive social changes take time, and autism acceptance is no exception. Is Sesame Street a step forward? I would actually say yes, but only insofar as it is an opportunity to talk more, publicly, about how far we still have to go. It would advance nothing to say “Oh, Sesame Street has an autism initiative. At least it’s something, we’ll take it, let’s not throw stones.” Nope. Throwing stones is also a needed step in order to move autism acceptance forward.
These are my stones. This website is not good. There’s too much that’s bad tipping the scales toward ableism and stigma. I hope Sesame Street listens. I think they can still fix this. Go back to the drawing board (literally and figuratively) with Julia, scrap everything else. Yep, scrap it. You made an autistic muppet, awesome. I love that she does happy flapping and loves to sing. Make her a real muppet. Make her part of the Sesame Street family. Let her talk instead of just talking about her. Let autistic kids see their reflection in her and feel that they are real people too, not monsters. Let them tell their own stories. Sesame Street has always known how to let kids be kids and they can do it again, and they can start now.