When the 60 Minutes segment about Julia, Sesame Street’s new autistic muppet character, aired within minutes my Facebook feed was filled with stories about it, and my phone started pinging with text messages.
One of the stories included a link to the online video of the segment, which I turned on and my son came to stand next to me as I watched it.
I liked what I saw of Julia, such as not responding when other characters addressed her, and flapping her arms when she was excited.
The introduction of this character and these behaviors was an important step to help normalize autism for other children, so that when they saw similar actions from their classmates, they could better understand and accept behavior that might be otherwise confusing to them.
While Julia’s autism expression was different than how my son expressed his autism, it was still valuable for informing people who didn’t know anything about it.
My son liked it too, saying he thought Julia did a good job showing what autism can look like.
But then things started to go downhill.
Almost immediately there was a sharp increase in stimming. He stopped responding to us as we tried to get him ready for bed, and resisted every step of his bed time routine.
Sometimes if something happened during the day, like a bad encounter with another player on a game server or a problem that he did not know how to solve, for example, his frustration and anxiety can come out at bed time.
If I am patient, he’s usually able to eventually articulate what was bothering him.
So I waited, and when he was finally able to converse with us again, I asked him what was going on.
“I don’t know,” he answered. I tried to think of what had happened over the day which might be emerging now. As I thought about it I realized the behavior started shortly after we had watched the 60 Minutes segment.
“Was there something about Julia that made you uncomfortable?” I asked him. He nodded, relieved that we had figured it out.
“She reminded me of how different and weird I am,” he answered.
This one statement from my son demonstrated how well Sesame Street had pegged it with Julia.
My son feeling this way was exactly why Julia was needed.
If his behavior was never treated as strange by others, he would never think that he was different or “weird.”
The fact that he was responding so strongly meant that Julia had successfully captured some recognizable essence of autism which my son felt, not just saw.
I don’t think he would have responded so strongly if she did not ring true for him.
We work closely with our son to teach him that every aspect of him, including his autism, is unique and wonderful. We are well-supported by a network of professionals who celebrate his strengths and work with him and his challenges in positive ways.
And yet he still feels like an outsider at times. Julia’s presence on Sesame Street could help with that for other kids on the autism spectrum.
Will Julia solve this for all kids on the spectrum? Of course not. But she is a great step in the right direction.
This story was published with my son’s permission.
Also published on Medium.