The Importance of Autistic People Seeing Reflections of Ourselves in Media – Sesame Street, Julia and Me

I kept seeing a link over and over again in my facebook feed yesterday and today which got my attention, plus a friend shared it on my wall. Once I saw what it was all about I hit the “share” button and started to type out how it made me feel. It quickly became something that belonged here on Echoes of Mermaids and not a fb post.

LINK ⇒  http://www.people.com/article/sesame-street-introduces-autistic-muppet

Fuzzy favorites Grover, Abby and Elmo are joined by their newest muppet pal, Julia, a character with autism, in Sesame Street Workshop‘s new nationwide initiative.”

                                             Meet Julia!! She’s Autistic!

image (c) Sesame Workshop/Marybeth Nelson

image (c) Sesame Workshop/Marybeth Nelson

If you’re NeuroTypical (LINKhttp://musingsofanaspie.com/2013/01/10/what-is-neurotypical/) you might not understand what a big deal this all is, and that’s okay because it’s probably not part of your life experience unless there are Autistic people in your life. So let me tell you why this means so much to me as an Autistic person.

I was born in 1969, the same year as Sesame Street as it goes. I’m actually 8 months older! How special and really life saving it’s been to grow up with them, to have our beginnings intermingled as they have. It’s lucky I even got to see it! Growing up in rural East coast Canada we only had 2 channels — 3 when we could tune in the French one. So this show was a standout not only in its content, but also its longevity.

I can’t ever remember not feeling different from everyone else in fundamental ways that seemed to keep me separate no matter how hard I tried to fit in and be liked. Trying to be understood was nearly impossible.  It was like I had a really important secret that even I didn’t know. Everyday I searched to figure out what it was that seemed to prevent me from connecting to people like I did to animals, to plants, rocks, stuffed animals, the moon and the stars, colours, cameras, books, the number 3 to music most of all.

See, despite a frantic search for a reflection of myself in other people whether in person or on TV I never could seem to quite find it, nor did I go about it in very good ways at times. I was always looking for some sort of ‘sign’ that I was connected to someone else because I just don’t understand the supposed natural process of it. Sometimes I’d find what I thought were enough signs and I’d become out of control about it all, mostly in my head. I’d emotionally suffocate people once I grabbed a hold – all trying just so desperately to figure out where I fit but more so – WHY wasn’t I fitting in despite all my very young mind had come up with to try to make that happen.

The pressure I put on myself for being different — and then trying to crack the code of fitting in because when I acted as my true self it just wasn’t tolerated mostly — was staggering even at the age you see in the photo below.

A girl and her plastic dog. Grade Primary - 1974

A girl and her plastic dog.
Grade Primary – 1974

Sesame Street instantly became something I looked forward to seeing SO much. I could have watched it all day, along with a show that very few may have heard of outside of Canada called “Bixby and Me” (“Bixby Says… Reeeeeelaaaax.”)  I was actually introduced to Bixby at my one room Schoolhouse where I attended Grades P,1 and 2 and walked uphill – just one way – to get to school.  That’s my School picture above and when I was Reeeeeelaaaax‘ing with Bixby!

♪ It's Bixby and me, we live in a tree, and for miles around, there's so much to see. There's plenty to do, and people to meet, so come on along, with Bixby and me ♪

♪ It’s Bixby and me, we live in a tree,
and for miles around,
there’s so much to see.
There’s plenty to do,
and people to meet,
so come on along,
with Bixby and me ♪

Those 2 shows became what I relied on for the majority of my “scripts” (LINK to YouTube Video about Scripting ⇒ https://youtu.be/vtbbmeyh5rk ) from pre-school through to about grade 3 or 4 when those scripts didn’t work anymore with my peers. Even at 46 years old I love it when I find someone who I can communicate with using just lines from Sesame Street or other childhood favourites as the main language.

Until 2011 when the seizures started my life was a seemingly endless cycle of trying to find reflections of myself in others so I could figure out how and where I belonged. So I could maybe be like others and answer questions with ease and not the awkward way I did. So that when I was a kid I could figure all the weird ‘girl’ toys out (umm Barbie? Yeah, I don’t get that whole thing) and look happy doing it because that’s what I saw reflected back to me and it’s what was asked of me.

I was supposed to want to play with other kids and expected to know how. But I wanted the time alone in my room looking at my Kaleidoscope or my Viewmaster to be respected as important to me. My escapes from so many failed attempts at play and friendship because they truly made me feel happy and I didn’t have to struggle so hard.  I was fine with hanging out with my Grandmother, or my pet rabbit, or my abundant ‘favourite’ rock collection.

I also remember watching Romper Room in hopes of hearing my name!

Romper, bomper, stomper boo. Tell me, tell me, tell me, do. Magic Mirror, tell me today, have all my friends had fun at play?

Romper, bomper, stomper boo.
Tell me, tell me, tell me, do.
Magic Mirror, tell me today,
have all my friends had fun at play?

                “I see Robert and Kathy and Mark and Emily and Pa….trick…”

                                               (maybe next time 🙄 )

Because despite wanting those times alone there were also times I wanted to be seen, to be acknowledged, to be understood. I knew I had so much to offer the world but I just couldn’t seem to break through. I notice to this day (literally) conversations end when I participate.

Shows like Sesame Street helped me to be able to exist around my peers enough to just get by. Just getting by never fills you up though, so you’re in a constant state of losing ground – well, sanity really.  I used my scripts from the show and the things I learned from the various skits as ways to communicate with others. But I rarely ever saw myself, even in a show as diverse as it was. It was teaching me ways to be around others but was it really teaching others how to be around and accommodating of me?

They’ve taken a giant step forward in this regard. In giving Autistic kids the opportunity to see a world accepting of our differences. To see that we can fit in on our own terms and not spend all of our processing abilities on working to blend in and hide the things we need to cope – like stimming to self regulate for example.

And they’ve done something which is what ultimately allowed me to feel good about talking about this on my website. They worked with ASAN for the past year on this project!

ASAN‘s Statement on Sesame Workshop’s “See Amazing” Initiative.
LINK ⇒ (http://autisticadvocacy.org/2015/10/asan-statement-on-sesame-workshops-see-amazing-initiative/)

ASAN was able to accomplish this with the tireless advocacy of so many actually Autistic and our allies who work with Boycott Autism Speaks. They pushed for Sesame Street to partner with more than just Autism Speaks, who as it goes is not a good organization at all.

I’m also including a link from ‘The E is for Erin’ that offers a very in-depth critical review. There are many very valid points.

LINK ⇒  http://eisforerin.com/2015/10/23/not-in-love-with-julia/

“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.”

I checked out the interactive book on their website called “We’re Amazing 1, 2, 3” and cried at finally seeing a reflection of me on Sesame Street. And because when you’re an Autistic female you’re just that much more invisible, having the character be a girl means so much.  As an added plus orange is my favourite colour, like, favouritefavouritefavourite and Julia’s hair is orange!

Julia and Elmo – image (c) Sesame Workshop/Marybeth Nelson

They even have a page dedicated to just Autism!

LINKhttp://autism.sesamestreet.org/

This wouldn’t have even been possible just 5 years ago. I’m excited by the progress in the places it’s happened and a bit more hopeful for the barriers we have yet to break down. I can’t imagine Sesame Street is any less impactful and influential to the young minds that watch these days. The effect of this is beneficial for everyone which is a giant step toward how it should be.

I think though, I’m most excited for #ActuallyAutistic parents of Autistic kids who grew up with Sesame Street. To watch as they see themselves reflected in a positive and accommodating way will I hope, offer some healing for how so many of us were continuously forced to hide who we really are.

I’m really hoping Sesame Street continues to grow this part of their programming. It’s a step in the right direction, but we have a long way to go. Julia needs to transition from being purely digital to a “real” life character in the show so that this becomes far more inclusive. There needs to be Autistic characters of different races.  Black girls especially have a real difficulty being diagnosed and having access to services. We need Autistic LGBTQ characters.  Autism is a commonality — but we are all very different. The public image remains that it is mainly a young white male issue, but that’s far from the overall picture.

I don’t have children, but I have a Great Nephew who is just a year old and it’s a good feeling to know that this far more inclusive Sesame Street is the one he’ll grow with.

Welcome Julia! Lucky for me I already know the way to Sesame Street 🙂

See you there!