Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are terms that are used interchangeably to refer to a range of symptoms, disorders and syndromes. They are neurologically based and can affect socialization, development (both physical and emotional) and behavior. “On the spectrum” is another way of describing a person with autism. In each person who has autism, there can be a very different presentation. It’s a question of severity as well. Some children are referred to as “high functioning” if they are able to maintain average grades, keep up with their peers and don’t have behaviors or symptoms that significantly disrupt their lives. Other children with autism can have a very severe form of it, which can include major delays in speech and motor control as well as intellectual disabilities. Autism expert Dr. Stephen Shore said, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
While it may look different in different patients, there are some common threads. Difficulty with social interaction, trouble understanding verbal and non-verbal cues, and repetitive behaviors like hand flapping or other self-stimulating movements are seen regularly in a majority of patients with autism. It can be incredibly stressful for parents and families who have a child diagnosed with autism. Special education services, behavior therapy and other interventions are needed and it’s a lot to handle. Adding to the stress is a sense of isolation that can occur because those with autism are seen as too different to be included in mediums like television shows, movies and pop culture.
That could be changing however. In April the producers at Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization that produces the PBS show “Sesame Street,” introduced the character of Julia, a Muppet who has autism. The producers and writers spent a long time bringing the character of Julia to the screen. Five years of research and speaking to hundreds of autism experts might seem like overkill for a children’s show character, but it was precisely the fact that the show would be seen by mostly children that made the production company want to get it right. Until recently, the only autistic characters that were seen in books, movies or television shows were the stereotypical savant-genius model of socially inept people with mind-boggling mathematical or musical abilities. Rain Man, the 1988 movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, is what most might think of in terms of autism but that characterization is far from the norm.
Julia the Muppet is much more relatable to children. In the episode that introduces her character, parts of autism like social interaction and sensory issues are discussed. The character is shown finger painting with Elmo and friends, however she uses a brush because she doesn’t like how paint feels on her hands. She has a special place on an apartment balcony to go to when the hustle and bustle of street noise becomes overwhelming and while the other Sesame Street characters initially struggle to understand her quirks, they eventually come to accept them as part of who she is. Having a character with autism on a show that is so well-known goes a long way toward normalizing the autism spectrum. For children and families dealing with autism, it’s a significant advance in helping neurotypical people understand their world. The video below talks about Julia and other shows that feature characters with autism, check it out.