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!

Awakening from Hate

My eyes have been rimmed with tears that have spilled over so many times over the last 10 days since the Charleston shooting. It is completely accurate to say that shooting and everything that has come since has CHANGED me. Truly. It can be physically seen and emotionally seen. Last week I wrote about it here on my website:

Take It Down

2 nights ago I left my home and was not coming back. I walked down the property to the Trans Canada Trail and with my head held HIGH and only the clothes on my back I left my home of 23 years with no intention of returning.

I held up my middle finger and took my power back.

The clock stopped in my house at that moment all on its own. It was 8:44pm. (seriously) I roared so loud I stopped time. Remember what I said yesterday about being a Force of Nature?

After many hours and by my own accord, I came back. That little sentence in no way covers the events that led me back. And in my time away, I wrote this poem:

awakening_poem_june25_15

When I woke up yesterday the news of the Supreme Court ruling making same-sex marriage a right Nationwide in the USA (we’re a decade into that here in Canada) I felt this wave of love roll over me. It’s been so long since I felt such pure love for humans and humanity.

I felt part of something, part of a good day in history, part of something that I had given up on totally and that is that #LoveWins and  #HateLoses

In 10 days we’ve gone from the depths of disparity to the heights of love.

And I was here to feel it all. Be it in physical or emotional ways I’ve come to deaths door many times. To my angles on earth and not who keep me going when I think I cannot – thank you. I’d given up that whatever I came here to do could be done. That what makes Patricia unique and special and separates her from so many will eventually be what changes minds and hearts and opens them up to a different, not less, way of being.

I am a conduit. I am here to reflect back to you the good and the bad, I’m here to learn but that learning is so I can teach. When I break that universal contract, I suffer. I don’t want to suffer any more.

I had let hate into my heart. My heart is pure though and cannot survive and thrive in hate. I’m laying my hate down. I can’t abide that I woke up from a coma for it to get worse, I can’t.

There are people in this world who get joy from hurting others. If I gave back to them even a fraction of what they’ve laid on me, they couldn’t handle it. They have sad, dark little lives. I know, that’s what was happening to me as I got caught in a place that just isn’t for me. One of lies, of treachery, of feeding off the pain caused in others. Misery loves company. I’d rather be alone. I won’t be like them.

I will walk away, I know now I can do it. I’m not beholden, trapped, I’m not a victim, I’m not going to be a footnote, I’m going to write the damn book! And those who wanted me to say nicer things about them when I do? Guess they should have treated me better.

*exhale

Take It Down

#TakeItDown

                                                 ↑ Know what that means? ↑

It means I’ve drawn a line in the sand so deep that if you attempt to cross it now you will fall into a deep cavern and I hope you don’t come out till you are a worthy, yes worthy, earth citizen.

Take It Down – that blood stained, racist, confederate flag.
It’s time to TAKE. IT. DOWN.

confedflad_generallee

This isn’t “The Dukes of Hazzard” this is real life and not that it hasn’t always been this serious but Charleston has changed me and part of the commitment I made today when I tweeted ‪#‎IStandWithCharleston‬ means I walk it and talk it and call it out. So here I am.

I’m calling us out.

Nova Scotia has a horrifically racist past that has made very few gains with this issue given the deep and long standing history of racism that exists here. In many ways we have the ability to relate to what is happening in the Southern United States with our shared histories.

We consider ourselves very friendly and giving here, and we are. So we look at things like what just happened in Charleston and feel a bit somewhere between superior and grateful that it’s “not as bad” here. President Obama has been quoted everywhere I look talking about how the scale and frequency for these acts of terror are so much more frequent there. That brings up discussions about guns and rights to own them, etc. Something else we share here. Lots of guns and hunters. But despite our “polite racism” we don’t have mass public shootings.  Many of ours seem directed at Police Officers or women. So we cling to, “not like that, not so bad” and about our daily lives we go.

Which brings me to another little fact we white folk need to get our heads around now  – ‪#‎SilenceIsConsent

Every time you let racist attitudes, remarks and actions slide because of whatever reason you have come up with – it just takes us away from any small gains we are making. One person really does make a difference, I promise.  I know it’s complicated, but every one of us has contributed in some way and we have to tackle it now. I promise that too.

It’s time to stop. Here in Nova Scotia some people still openly fly the confederate flag in their yards, use it as a licence plate, some people burn crosses on the lawns of those who they deem not worthy of them. Doesn’t that make you want to vomit? It does me.

racism-text-straight

I can’t find a way to properly vet (provide proof for) something I’ve heard and been told over and over again since I was a kid about the town I went to High School in and now live close to. I’ve been told there was a “law” in place (not now, but not that long ago – Grandparents generation) that prevented black people from owning land and living in the area. I feel even if it isn’t a written down on paper law, it’s a “country law” so to speak. And I think it was and is still a pervasive attitude here about anyone non-white and I’m sure that law or not we’ve created a lot of segregation. I mean, who wants to live where they aren’t wanted? Where your house might get burned down because of the colour of your skin and nothing more.  We are so severely non integrated here that people notice when there’s a black person in town and I actually hear people say,

“What are they doing here? Must be lost” and “Who let them in here?” and then laughter like that somehow justifies ignorance and intolerance at the very least.

I remember the same words as a child when a Pakistani (And I now realise that I am ignorant here and relied on the slurs/knowledge of others and could very well have this wrong. If so, please correct and educate me)  family moved in and opened up a restaurant/convenience store.

Once some locals decided they “knew their place” which was they were allowed there to serve us they were called, “The Pakies.” I heard stories of “they don’t pay taxes” and “they use the money to move all their damned relatives here” and jokes about the cars they drove and on and on. I remember people doing it to their face, and they’d chuckle but I always felt uncomfortable and like it wasn’t funny. I was a little girl, I hadn’t developed the language skills yet to say something. I have now.

I remember the very moment I was introduced to racism. It is seared into my brain like an unwanted visitor.

nelsonmand_quote

Our family was friends with a black family when I was maybe 7? 8?  They had an unusual last name. Not unusual in the hard to pronounce or maybe from another country way. My last name at birth was “Hill.” Just kind of, how’d they get that last name, way? Remember, I’m a literal Autistic kid who was also examining words and language so I could understand the world around me.

So I set out to find out how people got their last names and in my families case – Hill was a more modern version of Hyll. Not an inventive lot, it’s Scottish and English and is an extremely common and widely distributed topographic name for someone who lived on or by a hill. This makes me laugh. There are also English and Scottish and German on another side with last names like Cook and Baker. Want to take a guess how they got those?

Not so cute and funny for black history. Know how many of them got their last names? Black slaves, IF they were GIVEN a name by their owners would often be given the last name of their captors. It’s called a “Slave Name.”  It was sickenly not enough to own another human and think you are entitled because you are white, but to totally steal their identity, their family name??!! It’s just so wrong. We need to be ashamed. Feel the burn of humility so we never go back.

So we’d always go see them and one weekend they were finally coming to see us! I was excited! Their one daughter and I were the same age and got along really well.

The adults were acting weird though. There was this stress that never existed before. I didn’t understand.

It took a lot of convincing but finally I got permission to take my friend to play “kick the can” with the neighbourhood kids. I was SO excited introduce them my friend!

They were in mid game and when they saw her, everyone froze.

kickcanbw

I kicked the can. No one moved. I explained how the game worked, kicked the can again and told her to run.

No. One. Moved.

There was eventually some awkward talking, a small effort to play the game but, and this is the part that makes me feel so upset, no one wanted to touch her so one by one they all left. Now understand this is not a judgement on how any of us acted. We knew what we knew, we did what we did. We mimicked our parents, our older siblings. This was the middle 1970’s in a really, really small community – not even a town.  I’m sharing an experience that I’m choosing to re-examine and learn from. That’s what I do, part of who I am. I suppressed expressing these things for 4 decades now.  It’s not about shaming the actions of the past but it is about making our actions now better.

When her parents left that day we never saw them again. Small town living you don’t rock the boat, especially the white boat. I can’t imagine what was said to my parents. Yes, I can actually. You and I know what was said. You and I know the snide remarks they’d get about their choice of friends and bringing them to “our town.”

I’ve carried a lot of confusion and guilt about that situation. I’ve wanted to apologise for a long time. I can in part do that now by speaking out, by calling it out.

I’m not going to take or let go unchallenged racist, homophobic, transphobic or ableist language any more. I’m done.

I will not abide the idea that a little girl, barely older than my friend all those years ago had to lay down on the CHURCH FLOOR AND PLAY DEAD TO LIVE.

rosaparks_quote

This was not an act of mental illness, not in a way that gets a pass. It’s not mental illness when white people do it but when non-white people do anything on any scale they are a terrorist. That gives mostly white man-made laws, enforcement agencies and courts carte blanche to carry out nearly unspeakable punishments against all minorities. No, this was a thought out, cold, calculated terrorist, racist attack in a place of worship where people gather in love and prayer. This waste of human flesh (he will not be named here) sat with the people he murdered, for a hour – he said he almost didn’t do it because they were so nice. Let that sink in.

I don’t care about our precious, special white person feelings any more. Take the flag down, lay your hatred down and mostly just grow up!

I stand with Charleston. Will you stand with them too? Will you pledge to not let this type of behaviour continue by signing the Petition to Take The Confederate Flag down once and for all!  And equally important will you please, remember them! Know their names, learn their stories.

I encourage you to do what I did, take a few moments and if you can and say their names and ages out loud or in whatever way accommodates you. It’s very sobering and I think really important that we continue to keep their memories alive while honouring them by doing better.

Cynthia Hurd, 54, branch manager for the Charleston County Library System

Susie Jackson, 87, longtime church member

Ethel Lance, 70, employee of Emanuel AME Church for 30 years

Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, admissions counselor of Southern Wesleyan University

The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, state senator, Reverend of Emanuel AME Church

Tywanza Sanders, 26, earned business administration degree from Allen University

Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74, retired pastor (died at MUSC)

Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45, track coach at Goose Creek High School

Myra Thompson, 59, church member

Here’s a link of:⇓

[ Names, pictures, small bio of Victims of Charleston Shooting ]

mlk_darknessquote