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Toxic ideas: Autistic self-advocates end their partnership with Sesame Street#

By Chris Wenz

Julia, an autistic muppet, arrived on Sesame Street in 2017 after the success of Sesame Workshop’s online initiative See Amazing in All Children. If you haven’t seen Julia’s first appearance on Sesame Street, it’s embedded below and you need to watch it. Seriously: it’s only 10 minutes, and it's Sesame Street so I promise you won’t regret it.

The care with which Julia’s differences are explained, understood, and accepted as an incredible antidote to how our culture perceives autism. One of the top comments on the video embedded above is an excellent reminder of this reality:

“The sirens weren’t that loud.” “well they were to Julia!” I genuinely wish I had friends this considerate of my disability. seriously."

The See Amazing campaign and Julia’s presence on the show has already had an impact on the stigma surrounding autism. In a recent study published in the journal Autism, Anthony and colleagues evaluated the impact of the See Amazing materials on parents of children with and without autism. Notably, they found that after exposure to the materials parents of non-autistic children had increased knowledge of autism and greater acceptance of autistic children.

The success of Julia on Sesame Street and See Amazing in general is in part due to the involvement and input of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), an organization run by and for autistic people. The involvement of autistic people in depicting autism in popular culture shouldn’t be remarkable, but it was. Unfortunately, the partnership between Sesame Workshop and ASAN has ended. So, why would ASAN end a highly successful campaign aimed at reducing stigma and promoting acceptance of autistic children? ASAN’s decision was driven by Sesame Workshop’s promotion of the Autism Speaks 100 day kit for young children. An August 2019 press release published on the ASAN website clearly states the organization’s objections:

"Too often parents of autistic children are bombarded with terrifying messages. They are told that their autistic child will destroy their marriage and their nondisabled children’s lives. They are told that their child’s happiness – and their own – depends on the child ‘getting better’ by hiding their autistic traits, and to work toward this goal above all else. They are told to grieve for the hypothetical nondisabled child they had imagined, rather than to love and connect to the autistic child in front of them. These messages hurt autistic people, scare our families, and encourage our communities to fear and exclude us. Autism Speaks has played a central role in developing them. The See Amazing initiative was groundbreaking because it offered an alternative to these stories. It let families know that their autistic children are amazing, can live happy lives, and are deserving of love. Now, Sesame Street has decided to let See Amazing become just another vehicle for Autism Speaks to spread the same old toxic ideas.

It’s important to understand that the toxic ideas about autism and including autistic children that ASAN is pushing back against are all around us; In May, disability advocate Hannah Greico wrote in Education Week about the “entrenched” resistance to the inclusion of students with autism and other disabilities in mainstream classrooms. Included in her piece were actual online comments she encountered on articles about inclusion. One such comment reads: “It’s too bad the other children are the ones who lose out when special-needs kids are mainstreamed. This story is all well and good but it means that this woman’s child got way more than the other children in terms of support and attention.”

These are the attitudes that students with autism and other disabilities face, and they can have a devastating effect on their health and well-being. What is so powerful about Julia’s presence on Sesame Street and the See Amazing campaign is that it focused on shaping the attitudes and understanding of non-autistic children and adults NOT on fixing Julia or excluding her for the benefit of her peers. It has thus far been a campaign that recognizes that the well-being of autistic children depends on how they are treated by the adults and peers in their lives. I hope that this focus remains, even though ASAN will no longer be involved.

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