Beloved children’s television show Sesame Street has always been about learning new things and accepting people’s differences. On April 10th, Elmo, Big Bird, and Abby Cadabby will introduce the kids at home to a new friend, who’s different in a way they haven’t discussed before: Julia, a four-year-old autistic girl.
Julia first appeared in an online storybook in 2015, called We’re Amazing, 1, 2, 3! In it, Elmo tells Abby, “Julia has autism, so she does things a little differently.” Over the course of the story, Abby sees the things Julia “does differently” – such as her lack of eye contact, how she is sometimes slow to respond, and the way she flaps her arms when she gets excited – and the three friends have fun playing together. Now, Abby is finally coming to the main television show, in Muppet form.
These days, American kids spend an average of 32 hours a week watching television, so a significant amount of what we see as “normal” is influenced by what we see on TV. And I don’t need to link statistics to tell you that kids (and adults) look at people who act in ways that are “not normal” and label them as “weird” at the least or bully and ostracize them at the worst.
Sesame Street acknowledges that there are many kinds of normal and champions people’s differences. For example, Elmo and Whoopi Goldberg once discussed how much they each liked their fur or skin and hair, respectively. In a more recent episode, the show discussed how people have different accents based on the language they speak and where they are from with a scene in which some rude kids make fun of Rosita's voice. The cast of Sesame Street teaches that there are many different ways to look and act, and with Julia it’s the same message.
In a YouTube video, Elmo wants to play with Julia, but she doesn’t engage with him. Instead of assuming that this means Julia doesn’t like him, Elmo is unbothered and suggests that they play “side-by-side” instead because there are “lots of ways friends can play” – and they do so, until Julia is ready to play together. In doing so, Elmo demonstrates acceptance towards a different way of behaving. Julia does not interact with people in the same way that Elmo does, and that’s okay. In clips from the upcoming episode in which Julia is officially introduced to the Sesame Street show, revealed in an episode of 60 Minutes, Elmo and the others acknowledge and accept the other ways that Julia is different. When they play tag together and she jumps around instead of running, nobody tells her that she’s playing the game wrong; instead, they decide that it looks like fun and turn it into a new game. When loud police sirens upset Julia, her friends usher her inside and away from the noise and then patiently wait for her to be ready to play again. Nobody dismisses her as unfriendly, difficult, or “weird.” Julia’s autism is accepted as a part of her, and the ways that she is “different” are treated in the show as her kind of “normal.”
I have no doubt that after watching Elmo and the others treat Julia with love and respect, kids in the real world will do the same when they come across someone who communicates and plays in a different way – and I hope that other television shows add autism to what they show as “normal,” too.