We all seem to have got a little excited over the fact that Sesame Street has a new muppet. Not just any muppet; Julia has autism. It’s exciting news because those of us who experience autism every day hope it will raise more awareness of the condition and focussing it at children means that hopefully when they start school and encounter a friend with autism, they might more equipped with knowledge to understand more, their new friend’s traits.
On a personal note, my son has never watched Sesame Street until tonight when I searched the channels and was shocked to actually find it. I was under the impression that it was no longer broadcast in the UK and the last time I recall seeing it was about *cough cough*, 30 years ago with some funky music with psychedelic swirls going on and someone singing “one two three four five, six seven eight night ten, eleven twelve, doo doo doo doo doo. ” Although seriously questioning whether that did happen or whether I was a drunken teenager.
My son, Joseph isn’t a big TV fan anymore in all honesty, but the shows he does enjoy usually consist of music and dance. I think there would have been the potential for him liking such a show just not tonight and he politely said “No, thank you” when I asked him whether he wanted to watch it. But that’s fine, it’s not someone with autism that I need to watch it.
If this show was not hidden in the depths of non-mainstream channels, there is every opportunity that more children (and adults) will see it, but I don’t think Sesame Street has ever been the hit in the UK like it has been in the US.
What we need is our very own Cbeebies to introduce a character with autism, pitch the show at pre-school children, which would target children and parents who watch TV together; I’m certain we are missing a trick here in the UK. I don’t want other children to experience what we did in those early days in that his classmates would tell their parents in earshot of me that Joseph was naughty as he didn’t always answer the teacher and because he had a special chair.
On the whole, awareness has increased immensely. When autism is mentioned, very few people are automatically thinking Rain Man. We are past that and as a society we know more about it. As far as I recall I didn’t go to school with anyone who was autistic. The small number of children who were educated alongside me were grouped together under the umbrella of having learning difficulties and I had not encountered the words autism or autistic until I had watched Rain Man. Most children with additional needs were educated in a special school and I missed out on the opportunity to learn more about people with disabilities as inclusion wasn’t on the agenda at that point.
Children are more perceptive and accepting of differences, it’s adults that usually struggle with this. Joseph has a variety of friends who in the main, treat him as Joseph their friend and not Joseph with autism. He may have little quirky ways and there may be the occasional giggle, but they enjoy being with him. We dropped some of his school friends off recently and one of the parents asked which children wanted to travel with Joseph; all four of them did. It made my heart jump and I was so pleased my son had suddenly acquired the status of ‘popular’.
Unfortunately, with a limited amount of awareness also comes stereotyping and there will always be an element of people thinking that all autistic people have a brilliant memory, can’t stand noises and need to wear ear defenders. That’s not to say that some people aren’t like this but it’s not everyone. The positive is that people are at least sitting up, taking notice and attempting to learn more. The media now needs to do more to show that not all people with autism are male, verbal, educated and go on to secure employment.
Autism is no longer the condition that people don’t speak or know about but there is certainly more we can do to educate people. It’s entirely right to show more people with autism on TV, our society is one that is diverse and autism deserves its place. Julia will only show a couple of dimensions of autism, just as The A Word did. It’s impossible for one character to show all aspects of autism but with more exposure it will be possible to show how autistic people can be very different.
If Julia sticks around, she won’t be the character with autism; she’ll be Julia, another character on Sesame Street. When TV showed a kiss between a same sex couple, everyone got a little excited. Times have moved on in every sense and in the future, a new character with autism on TV won’t be splashed across everyone’s newsfeed. And at that point we will know that we are accepting and autism aware.