Something different happened recently in popular media that we need to see more.
A big-time children’s TV show turned a representation of autism from a disability to a difference.
Sesame Street’s Elmo and his Muppet friends have welcomed Julia, a girl with autism. Julia is a deliberate attempt to change the perspective of autism with the idea that people with autism have many interests and strengths, similar to their peers; they are just wired to think differently.
Although autism awareness campaigns are numerous, promoting autism as a strength is unusual. For example, in the popular television show Parenthood, Max Braverman is a boy with high-functioning autism.
Any deviation from Max’s daily schedule causes him to lash out. And the social aloofness that isolates him causes his parents angst.
Autism has even been associated with violent behavior such as that of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter, Adam Lanza, who had high-functioning autism.
Autism does not make individuals more likely to engage in violent behavior. But if this and other negative forms are the most common representation of autism, the public cannot be faulted for thinking otherwise.
There is also the issue of bullying. According to a recent study, children with autism are nearly five times as likely to be bullied as their peers.
Because of the nuances of social cues, people with autism may not be aware that they are targets of bullies.
Instead of seeing this as a problem with autism, we should see it as a problem with other children’s acceptance of others who are different.
Other entertainment and media outlets should take a cue from the Muppets on Sesame Street. By incorporating characters whose autism is neither negative nor a disabling idiosyncrasy, they are helping to change the focus from what individuals with autism cannot do to their strengths, value and dignity as people.
For example, in the story, Elmo likes to build block towers and knock them down. Julia likes to line up the blocks — a common play behavior sometimes displayed by children with autism. Elmo calls it a “cool wall.”
The storyline goes on to educate about how the core symptoms of autism — social-communicative difficulties, communication challenges and a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors or restricted interests — could be accepted as differences.
When Elmo introduces Julia to Abby Cadabby, Julia does not immediately respond. Abby wonders whether Julia does not like her.
Elmo explains that Julia has autism and “does things a little differently.” He suggests using fewer words and waiting longer for Julia to respond, which works.
And when Julia gets excited, she flaps her hands over and over again. When Elmo and Abby get excited, they spin and jump.
Same feelings but different displays of emotion.
And that’s what is so important. The show teaches children about autistic traits but portrays them as a celebration of uniqueness.
Autism is not a problem that needs to be fixed; it is a difference that needs to be understood.
Tina Fragale is a clinical assistant professor of special education in the Autism and Development Disabilities program in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin.