Yesterday’s ballyhoo about Sesame Street’s “first autistic Muppet,” Julia, joining the cast is underwhelming, since the personality and temperament of one of the show’s inaugural characters suggests that he, too, is very much on the spectrum: Bert (of “and Ernie” fame).
Think about it:
- Bert’s speech is monotonous and flat.
- Many of his routines with Ernie focus on his inability to appreciate sarcasm, metaphors, and figures of speech:
Bert: Tell me, how do I look?
Ernie: With your eyes, Bert. (giggle)
Bert: Oh, Ernie, come on….
- Like many autistic children, his food preferences draw on texture and color as much as taste – in his case oatmeal, unflavored fizzy water, and other bland foods.
Over five decades, the show never pathologized Bert’s social differences. He was accepted for his quirks, and his fellow human and Muppet performers learned to adjust to his special needs. His roommate and best friend Ernie was particularly accommodating.
Regarding Julia, though, the preschool-aged Muppets are being encouraged to treat her with unusual attentiveness because of her autism. As the most popular character on the show said in an online storybook, “Elmo’s daddy told Elmo that Julia has autism. So she does things a little differently.”
But all the characters on the show do things a little differently – from trash-obsessed Oscar the Grouch to Count von Count’s drive to, well, count everything. The show has embraced them all from the beginning, no labels required.
Same with many other differences, especially race. Sesame Street was a pioneer in broadcasting likeable urban characters of many ethnic backgrounds, but their identities were never patronized or problematized: “Maria is Puerto Rican. That means she speaks Spanish at home and probably has many brothers and sisters” or “Gordon is black. That means he has had to struggle with racism his whole life in a way that Muppets may not understand.”
Of course, in some cases, Sesame Street needed to specifically teach about differences, such as when the blind Muppet Aristotle showed Big Bird how reading Braille works, or when deaf human Linda used sign language.
The Julia phenomenon, however, is part of a troubling American trend that fetishes identity rather than celebrating diversity in the broadest sense. Muppets have different food preferences and gender expressions, but do we really need a vegan Muppet – or a transgender one?
Julia’s autism doesn’t require a label any more than Oscar needs to be tagged with Hoarding Disorder or the Count with OCD. Autism is a spectrum mental illness whose manifestations are so diverse that it’s often said “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
The lesson of accepting and welcoming children’s different social and emotional styles does not require the stigma that comes with saying “Julia has autism. She’s different.” Why can’t it be “Julia likes to flap her arms and has trouble maintaining eye contact. She’s different” – just like for nearly 50 years it’s been “Bert talks a lot about bottle caps and doesn’t always understand jokes. He’s different”?
Bizarrely, Sesame Street creators are saying they already know that. Writer Christine Ferraro told The Washington Post she would love the character “to be not Julia, the kid on Sesame Street who has autism. I would like her to be just Julia.”
Well, to paraphrase Chief Justice John Roberts, the way to stop treating people differently for having autism is to stop treating people differently for having autism.