Meet Julia
March 20, 2017 9:05 AM   Subscribe

via Sesame Street: "We’re very excited to announce that a new friend will be joining us on Sesame Street! Our new friend is Julia; she is a 4-year-old with autism! " "Julia started last year as a character in Sesame's books and digital offerings. Sesame decided on a two-fold mission for the related campaign "See Amazing in All Children," to give children with autism and their families someone to identify with — and those that don't a window into their world." posted by roomthreeseventeen (20 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Also related is "My name is Frank. I work at Sesame Street. I am "Autism Daddy."

He's how a lot of parents in the autism community found out about Julia in 2015.
posted by 80 Cats in a Dog Suit at 9:16 AM on March 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

My metafilter game is off. It never occurred to me to post this. I know this puppeteer! (But not close enough that I would consider it a self-link.)

Link Dump! Here's my facebook commentary:
Autism and Asperger's (or those with any neuroatypical aspects) are vastly underrepresented on television or in the fictional world in general. Representation matters. When you grow up not seeing yourself in any stories it becomes easy to believe you are invisible at best, or are unworthy of having your story told and are other at worst.

Often when these characters do make it into fiction, they are relegated to stereotypical roles as a foil for the true hero in the story. Or they gloss over the difficult aspects of living with such conditions.

Most of us are friends with, or related to, someone on the spectrum, so this is a wonderful addition to the Sesame Street cast! I'm looking forward to seeing what they do with this character, and with Stacey at the helm, I trust they will get it correct.

I'm also loving the way this story is being told in the media. No one is treating Julia as a gimmick character (which sometimes happens with other characters with unique traits).
I've known for a while Stacey would have a part on Sesame Street, but she's been pretty tight lipped on what her role actually was. I'm excited to see this play out. I honestly thought she was going to play a butterfly of something.

Note: Stacey has requested people not use the name of her son on public forums like Facebook (or metafilter). She calls him "the boychild." It would be great if people here could as well.
posted by cjorgensen at 10:00 AM on March 20, 2017 [25 favorites]

The videogame Overwatch also has a character with autism, Symmetra. We've known that for awhile but it was confirmed recently. It's all kind of low key, it's just a thing, it doesn't much affect the game at all. But it's a nice moment of diversity.
posted by Nelson at 10:33 AM on March 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was just remarking the other day that the character Fizz, a 6-year-old Muppet on Netflixes Julie's Greenroom might be on the spectrum.
posted by hoborg at 1:49 PM on March 20, 2017

I've been unsure how I feel about this. It's obviously well-intentioned, and it is important to present different kinds of people in media because different kinds of people exist in life. It's a good lesson to learn at a young age, and might help understanding further on in life. There are some great opportunities for children and adults to better recognize autistic people as a result of this kind of representation. The script floating around online looks okay.

But. There's also a lot of room for error. Representing autism in fiction can be difficult, because it is such a varied condition, and our understandings have been so badly damaged by stereotypes and frankly stupid pet theories like the "extreme male brain." Most depictions tend to rely overmuch on those stereotypes; Big Bang Theory being an obvious offender, but even more well regarded things like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Community rely to some extent on frankly bad understandings and harmful stereotypes. That's not to even get into the splits over levels of "functioning." The most true-to-life representation I've encountered has been in Paul Park's work, but the overwhelming, hellish, rapturous sensory experiences he writes about are so strange and outside of neurotypical people's ordinary conceptions that it's more alienating than enlightening for a general audience.

What's sticking out as a bit of a worry right away is that I think people-first language is important; "autistic people" rather than "people with autism." The distinction seems trivial, but it's actually a pretty huge gulf between accepting neurodiversity as a valid thing and seeing any deviations from neurotypical brains as automatically disordered.

So; yay for representation, but try to remember autistic people are people in their own right, too, not just people in relation to the neurotypicals in their lives.
posted by byanyothername at 3:44 PM on March 20, 2017 [12 favorites]

Oddly, I think it's way easier to get autistic characters right when they're not diagnosed-- Anya (from Buffy) really rang true for me, for example.

Sesame Street has a history of handling touchy subjects well, though (if you haven't seen "The World According To Sesame Street", you really should), so I think there's reason to be optimistic.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 5:00 PM on March 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

i really really wish they didnt partner with autism speaks, but i am overjoyed that it is a girl being represented, and the script seems to not have any egregious errors. Happy enough .
posted by PinkMoose at 5:15 PM on March 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

Note that this is specifically about American Sesame Street. Sesame Street is huge in so many countries and I think it's not immediately obvious to everybody that countries make their own Sesame Streets. Dutch Sesame Street was asked if Julia would also come to our country and the answer was that they had their own way of involving "children with disabilities" (their words). Like: they can listen and sit in at the book readings! As if that's totally comparable...

I'm glad that American Sesame Street is trying, and they seem to do a lot of things right but I wonder why it wasn't possible to find an autistic person to play Julia. All this talk about inclusiveness doesn't really ring true if it's just acting for everybody. The fact that the puppeteer has an autistic child does not make that any different (and it's kind of unsettling to me that so many people think that it does).
posted by blub at 6:21 AM on March 21, 2017

Well, the South African version of Sesame Street has an HIV-positive character. I wouldn't judge the Dutch too harshly. Imagine the outcry if that character was brought to the US.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:38 AM on March 21, 2017

If you haven't seen "The World of Sesame Street," I recommend you do. A lot of things go into decisions to make characters muppets (the movie features this in the context of a South African muppet who is HIV+).

Overall, this is a nice decision. Criticizing it because it's not the choice you would make (as a layperson) distracts from what they're doing.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 6:43 AM on March 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I also applaud Sesame Street for what they're trying to do here. As long as they don't make any huge, stupid mistakes, I'm good. I don't want the perfect to be the enemy of the good here. And while I would have liked to have an autistic child (NOT an adult) play Julia, there are some pretty strict rules already around working with child actors, and if that's not feasible for Sesame Street right now, then I'll take the muppet. I remember what it was like watching Sesame Street as a child, and the muppets were just a "real" to me as any of the actual humans on the show.
posted by sharp pointy objects at 7:02 AM on March 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

It's clear that the Sesame Street folks have tried really hard and put a lot of thought into this. Although it's easy to criticize their choices, autism is such a large spectrum that it's next to impossible to choose a single character to represent it fully. Autism primarily affects boys, so it should be a boy! Girls with autism get lost in the shuffle, so it should be a girl! Not all kids with autism can talk and sing and play with other kids. The character should be nonverbal! Not all kids with autism are nonverbal, it's a harmful stereotype! The character shouldn't be so extreme!

From a look at the website, it seems that they have indeed tried to use "people first" language: On the resource page, Julia is introduced by personality first and autism second. And I think the "being a friend" page is well done. My kid may or may not be on the spectrum, but frankly, if more kids internalized the advice on that page, he would have a far easier time interacting with them.

In terms of the character being a muppet and not an actual child with autism: You'd still have the full range of complaints detailed above, plus it seems to me like it would be really hard to make a recording studio environment and script that would be comfortable for the child.

And, think about what you're suggesting here: In some scenes, they show Julia having sensory meltdowns. Would you REALLY want them to film a child with autism having a meltdown and air it on television?????? That would be cruel in the highest degree. My child has sensory meltdowns and I think I would murder anyone who actually induced one on purpose and filmed it. I actually think having an adult actor who lives with a child with autism is a very reasonable compromise.

Finally, there are several videos on the resource page of children with autism talking about their favorite foods, what they like to do, and what they want other kids to know about autism. They feature kids who speak and kids who use different assistive communication devices. Kids with different affect as well (some make good eye contact, some don't, some squirm and make odd movements). I think that's a much kinder way to showcase real kids.
posted by telepanda at 8:53 AM on March 21, 2017 [9 favorites]

We are so excited to welcome Julia to Sesame Street. [FaceBook link]
posted by cjorgensen at 8:56 AM on March 21, 2017

In terms of the character being a muppet and not an actual child with autism
I meant an autistic puppeteer, FWIW. Sorry for the confusion.
posted by blub at 11:21 AM on March 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I like Julia, and I really like how a lot of the media framing around her is about how neurotypical kids can change their behavior to better include kids like her. It's not about what Julia needs to do (because I guarantee you Julia already receives a lot of therapy and coaching and morning) but what other kids can do.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 11:28 AM on March 21, 2017 [5 favorites]

What's sticking out as a bit of a worry right away is that I think people-first language is important; "autistic people" rather than "people with autism."

This is news to me. I've always used the latter—just as I say "people of color", not "colored people", i. e., because the alternative puts so much emphasis on just one aspect of a person's identity.
posted by she's not there at 8:00 PM on March 21, 2017

Mod note: Folks, this is not a thread about the causes of autism and I'd really prefer it not become one. Thanks.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 8:20 PM on March 21, 2017

The question of "people with autism" vs. "autistic people" is not uncontroversial. For what it's worth, what I've seen is that autistic people tend to prefer identity-first, while neurotypical people prefer person-first. Here's a 1999 example of an autistic person making the case for identity-first:

Why I dislike person-first language
posted by Daily Alice at 9:28 PM on March 21, 2017

"Autistic people who are active in the 'autism community' and express genuine preferences about person-first language."

Many (verbal) people with ASD haven't been diagnosed and many, many of those who have been diagnosed and could have a preference don't really care.

I don't really think it matters that much, but I would really like to live in a world where it was accepted that people with ASD don't share some kind of unified narrative.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 5:37 AM on March 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

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