How the autistic Muppet on "Sesame Street" will help advocate for young girls with autism — and how she could have helped me
My mobile phone rattled the bedside table. Three missed calls.
“They made you into a Muppet!” my mother exclaimed from the epicenter of her busy financial office.
I hung up and rolled over. I pulled the duvet over my head. Squinting at my phone, I Googled it.
Julia, the new autistic Muppet, and I are identical (though I am a 22-year-old woman).
Bright orange hair, blunt artistic fringe.
It is hard not to feel like a poster girl when you have an under diagnosed disability. Studies suggest that the ratio of autism diagnosis between men and women ranges from 2:1 to 16:1 — meaning it’s A LOT harder for girls and women to receive a proper diagnosis. When someone approaches me in a bar, I hide behind a fan of sooty eyelashes because I struggle to simultaneously speak and make eye contact. My voice is full of sugar to energize a flat affect. People repeat my words back to me like a catchphrase, like a cartoon character.
Sesame Street’s creative team consulted many organizations when developing Julia to ensure an accurate portrayal of autism.
They were praised by the autistic community for reaching out to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) so autistic people had agency in creating the character. This is especially important as we should work to promote self-determining charities with autistic people on the board of directors. Sesame Street‘s team also consulted with Autism Speaks, a charity that has caused controversy with their yearly “Light It Up Blue” campaign to raise “autism awareness.” The campaign utilizes the cultural association of blue as a masculine color, implying that autism is an inherently male condition. This gender bias in branding relates to the gender bias in research and diagnosis, perpetuating the stereotypical image of autism in pop culture (they are usually male “savants” — think Rain Man and The Accountant, for example).
But thankfully, Sesame Street‘s Julia breaks away from the media that typically portrays autism as a male condition reserved for counting toothpicks.
“Meet Julia” opens with the title character painting with the gang: Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and Alan, shopkeeper turned human foil. Down on Sesame Street, things get tense when Big Bird rolls onto the scene. Big Bird offers his new friend Julia a high five. She leaves him hanging. She doesn’t look him in the eyes.
Although it is Julia and I who share the same blunt, fashionable haircut, when people nestle together and chirp around tables, I feel more like a human hiding in a massive yellow canary suit, looking to a camera for guidance and empathy. And Sesame Street has long been championed for promoting social understanding among people from different walks of life. That’s cooperation.
Autistic women are routinely misdiagnosed into their 20s, 30s, and 40s, and continue to fight for medical recognition after the papers are signed.
I was assessed by a neuropsychologist at 13 and disregarded because I wanted to confess weekly tribulations with my first boyfriend, even though the real problem was that I was ostracized by my peers. School told my parents that I should “learn to fit in” to stop the bullying, and then take walks to calm down.
I learned to fit in and took walks to calm down. Women are raised to be socially compliant. Many autistic girls channel their energy into perfecting a social mask, and mine unravelled as I never received foundational support to develop coping mechanisms.
Although Sesame Street frames Julia’s introduction through a neurotypical perspective, by featuring a female autistic character, the program will help autistic children and their parents see themselves reflected on television. This representation can motivate professionals to take autism seriously in girls, and teach children to play with kindness, respect, and cooperation.
Julia is helping 22-year-old autistic women, hungover and watching Sesame Street, dissect the social politics of the night before. I am learning to look away so I can concentrate on a conversation instead of delivering a scripted performance. When I peep through my eyelashes, it is on my terms.
Julia is helping young autistic girls receive vital support.
We have a long way to go until we reach parity and representation, but by consulting with organizations like ASAN and featuring diverse media portrayals of autism, we can reclaim what makes us “different” and see images of ourselves.