Saturday, April 15, 2017

Meet Julia--an imperfect introduction

Over the years, Sesame Street has been a model of inclusion.  They showed college-educated African-Americans in the 1960s, a Deaf main character in the 1970s, death and birth of characters in the 1980s, a Spanish-speaking muppet in the 1990s, and responses to natural disasters and crises in the 2000s.  On Monday, Sesame Street took another step into introducing kids to a diverse, imperfect world with the culmination of their "Be Amazing" initiative: a felt and wire muppet on the autism spectrum.  Julia is four years old, is able to speak (mostly echolalia, which is a legitimate form of communication), loves her stuffed rabbit Fluffster, and flaps and bounces when she is happy.

I'm not going to discuss the accuracy of her portrayal of autism.  There will always be autistic people who share some of her characteristics but not others.  (I'm using identity-first language here, as this is the choice of many autistic people.)  Instead, I'm going to go into the other characters reactions to her.  It's not all bad, but it's not perfect either.

The Good:
  • Julia communicates in various ways, whether it's shuddering at the finger paint, using echolalic speech, covering her ears, and bouncing and flapping.  Alan, Abby and Elmo treat her communication methods as legitimate and respond appropriately.
  • Alan explains Julia's differences to Big Bird in a way that shows that they are a part of her, and does not attempt to remove or suppress her differences at any time.
  • Julia is shown to have talents of her own.  Her painting of Fluffster with wings is not only imaginative, but technically advanced for a four-year-old.
  • When Julia starts bouncing during the game of tag, Abby joins in, not because she's "being nice to the disabled kid," but because it looks fun.
  • When Julia shuts down due to the siren, almost no one gets angry or upset with her.
The Bad:
  • Although most four-year-olds, autistic or not, are not the greatest self-advocates, it would have been nice for Julia to have been able to advocate for herself more without having someone else "translate."
  • When Abby and Elmo explain Julia's differences to Big Bird, it comes off as being patronizing.  They sound as if they are saying, "yeah, Julia's weird, but we're her friends anyway."  This is particularly glaring to me because both characters are supposed to be a full year younger.  It makes Julia's differences stand out more.
  • Big Bird comes off as kind of a dick in this episode, particularly during Julia's shutdown during the siren.  He's an 8' 2" yellow bird whose best friend is a furry, brown, earless elephant, and he can't deal with Julia because she has sensitive hearing?  His comment about the siren not being that loud comes off as dismissive.  (And autistic people are supposedly the ones who lack empathy...)
  • After the intro segment, Julia is not seen or heard from again for the rest of the episode.  I'm hoping this is not the Very Special Episode about autism, and Julia is integrated more into the life of the Street as the series progresses.  I also hope that she has a part in storylines not related to her identity as an autistic muppet.
Overall, I'd give the episode a C+.  It was a fair, but not great beginning.  Let's hope that, as time passes, that Sesame Workshop is improves their portrayal, and Julia becomes a character in her own right. 

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