clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The subtle brilliance of Sesame Street’s first episode starring an autistic Muppet

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

When I was 3 or 4, some friends of my parents threw a party; the kids went and played in the basement while the adults sat upstairs and talked. Halfway through, I walked back up to the grown-ups’ area; the kids were playing hide-and-seek, I had no idea what was happening or what the rules were, and none of the kids would tell me. My mom started to explain when another mother interrupted. You shouldn’t tell kids the rules, she told my mom — they have to figure it out for themselves.

That party, in retrospect, was a perfect summary of what it’s like to grow up autistic, at least for me. You’re plunged into a world dense with rules and meanings that everyone else seems to understand intuitively without really trying. When you ask for clarification, to get let in on what everyone else already knows, the kids have no patience (and some of the adults don’t either).

Sesame Street has now taken it upon itself to try to change that, at least a little bit. And intriguingly, its efforts are not targeted at autistic kids, trying to get them to change and fit in better. They’re targeted at neurotypical kids, and designed to encourage them to change, by becoming more tolerant of kids who might hang out and play differently than they do.

Monday’s episode, “Meet Julia” (the first half of which you can view above) formally introduces Julia, an autistic Muppet who was announced back in 2015 as a character who would appear in some digital videos, apps, and books, but who’s only now making her appearance on the flagship series. And among other things, the episode features a game where she teaches the rules, and her neurotypical friends Elmo and Abby Cadabby learn from her and play along. They’re patient with her, and understand that she might need to play a little differently than they’re used to. That’s a message I wish my peers had heard growing up — and if it had been on Sesame Street in the early 1990s, they almost certainly would have.

Why Sesame Street tackling autism is so important

Media representation always matters, but we know that Sesame Street in particular affects viewers profoundly. The show’s impact on children watching it has been the subject of four decades of research, with both early 1970s studies and more recent analyses finding substantial gains in educational outcomes, especially for black children and children living in low-income communities.

And, crucially for the show's autism initiative, randomized evaluations have found that Sesame Street encourages prosocial, cooperative behavior among children. That’s exactly what the show’s autism initiative is seeking to do: model sensitive, cooperative behavior for neurotypical kids.

That’s a message that fits in well with Sesame Street but is miles ahead of autism representation elsewhere in TV and movies. For years, the autism group with the most purchase in Hollywood and the entertainment industry has been Autism Speaks; its "Light Up the Blues" concerts in LA are star-studded affairs with guests like Jack Black, Christina Applegate, and Brad Pitt, and co-hosted by FX Networks COO and Autism Speaks board member Chuck Saftler.

That group has analogized having autism to being kidnapped or having a fatal disease; one of its fundraising videos features an Autism Speaks executive recalling a time she thought about driving off a bridge to kill her autistic child (and saying the reason she didn’t is that she had a non-autistic child she needed to take care of). But the group has a huge following among parents of autistic children, particularly wealthy parents in the finance and entertainment worlds like Saftler, which helps it maintain its standing despite actual autistics’ objections.

It should be no surprise given the prominence of a group like that in Hollywood that movie studios have put out some harmful and at times actively anti-autistic film projects over the years. 2009’s Adam, starring Hugh Dancy as a man on the autism spectrum and Rose Byrne as his love interest, seemed designed to show that neurotypical people would have to be nuts to even consider dating someone with autism. I saw that movie when I was 19, having never been in a serious relationship before, and it was both offensive and deeply terrifying. What if the movie was right? What if people like me just didn’t deserve to have romantic relationships like everybody else?

“Meet Julia” is about the importance of friendship — even for nonverbal kids

Julia with her friends on Sesame Street
Elmo, Alan, Julia, Abby, and Big Bird drawing together.
Sesame Workshop / HBO

It was encouraging that when Sesame Street launched its autism project, it not only contacted Autism Speaks but also engaged the Autism Self-Advocacy Network to ensure that actual autistic people, and not just others purporting to speak on our behalf, had input.

ASAN and other autism rights groups have always pushed back against the Autism Speaks narrative that autistic people and our differences are the problem, and instead argued that neurotypical institutions need to adapt to make themselves more welcoming and less exclusionary toward people like us. For adults in the workplace, that means encouraging employers to make accommodations for autism, as they should for any disability, and promoting supportive housing and community services for autistic people who have trouble living on their own.

And for children, it requires taking steps to deter bullying and encourage neurotypical children to accept and not ostracize autistic kids. The great thing about that message is that it’s a perfect fit for the overall Sesame Street ethos: that we all belong in the same neighborhood, that we can all get along and play together, that our differences should in no way inhibit our ability to act as a community. Sesame Street has never been about pity or pathologizing differences. It’s always been about inclusion.

“Meet Julia” begins with its title character drawing pictures with Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and the adult human owner of Hooper's Store, Alan (Alan Muraoka), who serves as Julia's confidant and caretaker throughout the episode. Big Bird shows up and tries to talk to Julia, who doesn't want to talk back. “Sometimes it takes Julia a while to answer,” Alan explains. “It helps to ask again.” Then Big Bird offers a high five to Julia, and gets totally whiffed. “I don’t think Julia likes me very much,” he tells Alan.

There’s a subtle brilliance in how the show frames this interaction. The segment is shown through Big Bird’s perspective. He’s trying to make a new friend, but she won’t talk to him or high-five him. An overly careful show might have avoided this, but it’s crucial. The episode is aimed at neurotypical kids, and highlighting the ways they might take autistic people’s quirks as personal slights is very important. There’s no use pretending this isn’t how kids often react in this kind of situation.

Just as importantly, Big Bird is trying to be friends with Julia. He’s not angry that someone is disrespecting him; he’s sad that a potential friend doesn’t seem to like him. Even as Sesame Street is telling a story from a neurotypical point of view, the show is painting friendship with autistic kids as desirable, and modeling a response to perceived slights that doesn’t escalate into anger and ostracism.

“Oh, no, you two are just meeting for the first time,” Alan tells Big Bird, who thinks he gets it: “Oh, so she’s shy. I can feel shy sometimes too.”

“But with Julia, it’s not just that. She has autism. She likes it when people know that,” Alan tells Big Bird. The last line might seem like a superfluous flourish, but it’s key. It takes Alan from purporting to be Julia’s voice, to speak on her behalf as though she doesn’t have thoughts of her own (a particularly dangerous tendency with autism), to being just a friend respecting her wishes.

Julia with Fluffster on Sesame Street.
Julia with “Fluffster,” her stuffed bunny.
Sesame Workshop / HBO

The show’s answer to “What’s autism?” is equally skillful. “For Julia, it means she might not answer you right away,” Alan tells Big Bird. And as the segment progresses, it illustrates some other things that being autistic means for Julia. It means flapping her hands, a form of stimulation or “stimming” that many autistic people find comforting. For years, many therapeutic approaches to autism have discouraged stimming, with therapists and parents often instructing autistic kids to have “quiet hands” — even though the stimming comforts them and doesn’t harm anyone. On Sesame Street, stimming is allowed. Julia is free to be herself.

For Julia, autism also means not liking loud noises like sirens, even if they might seem normal to others. (Big Bird: “It wasn’t that loud.” Elmo: “It was to Julia.”) And it means playing games a little differently. When Julia introduces “boing tag,” the other Muppets aren’t upset that she’s breaking the rules of tag — they’re grateful to learn a new game and experience.

"She's not like any friend I've ever had before," Big Bird tells the gang. "Yeah, but none of us are exactly the same," Elmo responds.

"You're a bird, Elmo's a monster, and I'm a fairy," Abby concurs. "We're all different." They end the segment with a rousing rendition of “We Can All Be Friends.”

It’s not a perfect segment. Like Sarah Kurchak, another autistic writer who’s written about Sesame Street’s introduction of Julia, I wish Julia had more opportunities to express herself, rather than only having her friends talk for her. At the same time, though, I appreciated that Sesame Street has allowed Julia to largely not communicate through spoken words, without being judged for it. That’s a valid difference that shouldn’t prevent autistic kids from being able to have friends, and there’s value in the show demonstrating that this is what autism means for Julia specifically.

My bigger worry concerns the rest of the episode. After Julia’s introductory segment, there are number- and letter-of-the-day segments featuring the likes of Cookie Monster and the Count, and an ending credits song, and while they feature a wide array of Muppets, I didn’t see Julia in the crowd. Maybe she wanted to be alone for a while? That would be fine, but it would’ve also been nice to see Julia included when she’s not the focus of attention, and treated like any other Muppet.

However, I keep coming back to Big Bird’s attempts to interact with Julia: While they’re sometimes misguided or ignorant, they’re always well-intentioned and driven by a sincere desire to know her better, and greeted with understanding and new information by the rest of the Sesame Street gang. The show doesn’t give Julia a utopia to live in. It gives her a community where neurotypical people like Big Bird are genuinely trying their best and respecting her as a human being. It’s a beautiful model for neurotypical kids, and one I hope the show continues to explore.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.