For those of you who aren’t aware, last week Sesame Street introduced an autistic character, Julia, in a new online storybook along with current characters Elmo and Abby.There have been mixed feelings about this introduction.
When I first heard about this I thought it was fantastic. Disability is so rarely even included in the media that there is a danger that people can just ‘forget’ that it exists because whenever they’re watching TV shows, especially soaps about people going about their daily lives, disabled people just aren’t there. So when they do meet a disabled person they don’t know what to do or how to act around them because disability is a bit of an ‘unknown entity’. Remember my last blog about disability and identity? I discussed how society generally holds a negative image of disabled people as less able, different, maybe even like there’s something ‘wrong’ with us.
Sesame Street is challenging that image, and I think this is exactly the sort of thing we need to be doing to start changing perceptions around disability. Including an autistic character in the first place makes children aware that there are people with autism and helps them to start to understand it. Negative perceptions of disability only arise from a lack of understanding, so increasing understanding should have the opposite effect.
To explain the storybook briefly, Julia is introduced as Elmo’s friend, who he has played with since they were ‘really little’. Elmo introduces her to his other friend, Abby, and the three of them play together. However, Elmo has to explain at various points why Julia ‘does things a little differently’, like flapping her hands when she’s excited or covering her ears when she hears a noise she doesn’t like.
The storybook is aimed at a very young age group, 2-5yrs, which is a great age to start educating about disability. Autism is an invisible disability and no two people with autism are the same. It is what I would call a social disability as well as, often, an intellectual one. All of this means that autism can be very hard to understand, yet Sesame Street have managed to explain some of the common characteristics in a way that young children can easily understand and, more importantly, accept. What’s more, children are curious about everything because they’re learning so much about the world around them, so they’re likely to be highly receptive to it and therefore more likely to understand it/take it in. They’re not yet old enough to be influenced by society’s negative image, so if they understand a bit about autism at this age they’ll grow up accepting it and are therefore much less likely to form negative perceptions around it.
As children grow older their perceptions of disability will be largely affected by society’s perceptions, which creates the danger that the cycle will continue if we do nothing; as these children become adults who take society forward the negative perceptions around disability will continue to stick. However, if children are educated from a young age about disability this should go some way to changing those perceptions for the better, and should eventually spread through society.
While the majority of what I’ve read about the introduction of Julia has been positive or at least neutral, some are of the opinion that it is creating a negative stereotype. As I said before, no two people with autism are the same so yes, there is the danger that young children will read the storybook about Julia and assume that all autistic children have exactly the same behaviours. But wouldn’t this be the case with any autistic character that is introduced?
The problem isn’t that Julia has some common characteristics of autism that shouldn’t be generalised to all autistic children, the problem is that there aren’t more autistic characters in children’s TV. So at the moment the only frame of reference children have is Julia. Does that mean introducing Julia was a bad idea? I think not. I think it’s just the start. Not every child with autism will do things the way Julia does, so I hope Sesame Street will lead the way for the introduction of other autistic characters with a range of characteristics so that children understand that not all autistic children are the same. For now, though, we have Julia, and at least that’s a start in showing children how people with autism might behave so they can start to build an understanding of it. The other option? Sweep autism under the rug until children are ‘old enough to understand’, by which time they will have started buying into the negative image of disability prevalent in society today.
Until more characters with autism are introduced in children’s TV Julia will be a significant frame of reference for many, but perhaps, with guidance from parents, the emphasis shouldn’t be on Julia’s specific behaviours but instead on the fact that she does things a bit differently and that’s OK.