Sesame Street. Nostalgic. Not many a melody captivates our collective mind, as that which is the theme song of PBS children’s television series; Sesame Street. In close to half a century of airing, the long running programme has impacted an international audience and implemented a multifaceted understanding of academia and cultural diversity. It is epically classic.
Since its debut fourty seven years ago, Sesame Street has been used as a dynamic workshop, offering informative tools in education, interaction, society, diversity and human discourse. Advanced as these genres might appear to be, the series creators focus their concepts and production on a wide array of ethnical (and whimsical) animated characters, to capture and captivate the focus and interest of a child’s mind.
The evolution of Sesame Street over the years is reflected most profoundly in the introduction of new Muppets who define and epitomize different personalities that create platforms for awareness, enlightenment and most importantly relatability to an ever changing world.
In intentionally developing characters, themes and creating consistently colourful plot lines, the television series has successfully broadened the mindset and intellect of both children and indeed adult viewers alike in appreciating a wide assemblage of people whilst implementing a motley collection of unique tutelage techniques.
Enter Autistic Julia
Julia is a spirited, bright eyed, four year old with orange hair, and a tiny toy bunny. Similar to so many others who reside on Sesame Street; she is a Muppet.
As the latest tenderfoot in the neighbourhood, Julia draws our interest and attention during her first appearance, when fellow Muppet Abby Cadabby creatively describes Julia as doing things in a wonderful and unique “Julia kind of way”. Abby’s amazing outlook is impressed upon by Julia displaying some characteristics often associated with autism: she’s quiet sometimes when addressed, and when a fire siren sounds, covers her ears and is visibly flustered. In defining Julia as autistic, the puppet designers were emphatic in breaking the “same peas in a pod” stereotype that has been associated to the condition.
It is therefore important to realise that regardless of “types of autism”, autism is different for every single person even within a similar plane. Not one autistic child is alike to the next, regardless of being teamed within the same spectrum.
When we first encounter Julia as an audience, she is on a play date with fellow Muppets and friends, Abby Cadabby and Elmo. As they settle down to paint pictures under the watchful eye of Alan, (their human friend and proprietor of Hooper Store), Elmo and Abby enthusiastically finger paint as Julia (who shudders at the thought of getting her hands messy) opts for a paintbrush to colour in her pictures.
This sensitivity to touch and different surface textures is one amongst a number of character traits which Julia portrays that is common but not in any means general, universal or collective among autistic individuals.
One distinct facet that is indicative of Julia’s traits is her amazing artistic talent. Her display of talent is without a doubt implemented to highlight the extraordinary skills and intelligence that some children with autism have for musical instruments, academia, art and language. This in totality simply reflects the fact that these children (savants) reflect outstanding abilities as they possess a different dexterity set than their counterpart peers do….. they are therefore inherent experts in their individual, exceptional aptitude and adeptness.
Julia’s autonomy is distinctively delivered through her communication style, which is atypical. This means that she speaks a vocabulary of fewer words than is considered typical of her age group. Although things are a little more exacting for Julia, she relishes the joy and colour that is life depicted by her high level of excitement when she is happy. In this angle, Sesame Street successfully captures its target audience to journey in the process of understanding autism, underneath the primary thematic umbrella of the series which aims to illustrate how children with different backgrounds and abilities can create strong bonds of companionship. This in turn lays foundation for endurance and compassion, which are the cornerstone of an authentic friendship.
Hidden within the subtle details of Julia’s personality are interactive and behavioural representations. Using these portrayals as principles for conversation, a neurodiverse outlook is propelled. This dissolves what would otherwise be misconceptions of autism by “neurotypical” perspectives. When (the iconic) Big Bird first meets Julia, he mistakes her silence and lack of retort as an affront. He then comes to the understanding that Julia particularly takes time in answering, especially when she is already deep in concentration with an activity at hand. Just as an ensemble of other characters, Big Bird soon comes to appreciate that Julia’s way can be colourful, fun and unique.
In working with expert psychologists and specialists to present Julia precisely and carefully, Sesame Street has gifted as all a wonderful journey using a unique roadmap in understanding autism.
As we travel down this path of knowledge, we come to find that autism is a different reality bequeathed with an array of colourful comprehensions of the world around us.