When I was finally diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at 27, the thing that helped me the most wasn’t therapy or autism organizations. It wasn’t even my introduction to the neurodiversity movement and the idea that I didn’t have to be “cured” to have a worthwhile life. It was watching television.
One of my favorite shows was the cult favorite sitcom Community. The character Abed Nadir, though never officially labeled autistic on the show, is heavily coded as autistic. He was intensely interested in pop culture, and his use of sarcasm was a work in progress. He liked people but didn’t always know how to connect with them.
He was both a rare chance to see someone like me onscreen and a cultural touchstone that I could use to help explain parts of myself to new people without feeling like I had to teach Autism 101 every time I opened my mouth.
Abed was to me what Sesame Street’s writers are hoping the new autistic Muppet Julia will be to today’s children on the spectrum. Julia debuts April 10 on HBO.
When I wanted to describe anything from my off-kilter understanding of pranks to my interest in pop culture to my desires and imperfect efforts to relate to other people, I could say I was a little like Abed. Some people responded with references to issues that he’d experienced on the show. Some hadn’t heard of Community, which at least gave me the chance to talk about a great show instead of giving them a straightforward list of my symptoms and needs. At the very least, it got a few people to stop joking about whether I could count cards. That one little reference inspired a lot of understanding that I hadn’t really experienced before Community.
Julia’s presence on Sesame Street is a bold step forward for autistic awareness and inclusion. And based on my own experiences on the spectrum and in the world, I think her existence has the potential to be even more powerful than that. Thanks to Julia, autistic kids now have a chance to find their Abed decades before I found mine. She’s not just someone who might look and move a little like them. She has the ability to teach a whole new generation of autistic kids that they belong.
Learning social skills through television
In the show, Abed learned some of his social skills from watching movies and television shows. This was something I related to a lot. My interactions with people in real life didn’t always make perfect sense to me, so I turned to their scripted counterparts to help me figure out what I’d been missing and how to join in. I’ve since learned that using television shows and movies as a way to learn social skills is somewhat common for people on the autism spectrum.
To a certain extent, this is true of all people. Generations of kids have grown up on the kind and increasingly inclusive lessons of Sesame Street, for example.
As Autumn Singer-Califano observes in the 2008 Journal of Educational Psychology article “The Use of Technology in Enhancing Social Skills,” kids and teens can use their television watching as a way to mentally “rehearse appropriate interactions with peers and selectively apply them as appropriate situations arise.” Television can also be used as a kind of tool to help children and adolescents better understand themselves and others.
When you have a disability that affects the way you can read and respond to other people, those benefits become even more important. Some studies have started to look into ways of harnessing the potential of television to help young people on the spectrum improve their social skills, but, as with most things autism-related, people who are actually autistic are way ahead of the experts on this topic. Many of us have been using TV shows to help us fill in the gaps in our social development since we first realized we weren’t like other kids, and those lessons often continue well into adulthood.
Autistic bronies and pegasisters of all ages have embraced My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic both for its charming plots and for its explicit lessons about nurturing personal relations.
“As a person with Asperger syndrome, I learned more about theory of mind, friendships, and social interactions from this season than I had in the previous 31 years of life,” a brony named Luke Allen told Wired in 2011.
Dori Zener, an autism therapist I interviewed for a story on media and autism representation last year, told me that a number of her young female clients were big science fiction fans, because social conventions tend to be better spelled out on shows where outsiders or actual alien species are involved.
Friends was also a popular choice with the girls she saw. One client went so far as to watch every episode of Seinfeld in an effort to teach herself how to understand sarcasm and the nuances of acerbic humor that she struggled to pick up in real life.
As for me, I have several shows that I’ve turned to over the years. I continued to watch Sesame Street and Canada’s Polka Dot Door long after my peers had moved on — and long after the programs’ math and language lessons had started to bore me — because I was still getting something out of the way the characters treated each other. I also went through a Friends phase in my early teens — I can’t speak for other girls, but I think the goofy, larger-than-life plots helped me parse group dynamics — before switching to NewsRadio and fantasizing about finding my own group of misfits instead.
When I was a teenager, the overly wordy cast of Dawson’s Creek became the perfect bridge between my overly wordy self and the “normal” teenagers I was trying so hard to figure out. The fact that the characters could articulate their feelings in great detail and at great length gave me a better glimpse into the teenage mind than anything in my day-to-day life did.
I even turned to pro wrestling for a while because its over-the-top feuds, betrayals, and alliances are a surprisingly effective way to navigate the darker sides of human interaction and subterfuge when you don’t have any natural ability to intuit people’s intentions.
This all helped me integrate into a world that’s not built for people like me. I could study interactions, take time to process them, and start to practice my own variations before attempting them in real life, where the potential for failure — and the cost of failure — is so much greater. Studying and mimicking characters has also helped me learn to modulate the tone of my voice, make my conversation more reciprocal, and project some things with my body language.
Still, autistic characters are rare in television or films
There’s one glaring omission from most shows that makes this kind of makeshift study incomplete at best and harmful at worst: autistic characters. Or at least autistic characters who are more than an object of other character’s pain, inspiration, and/or teachable moments. When you’re learning social skills from examples that don’t include anyone who is like you, there’s a good chance you’ll come to the conclusion that there’s no genuine place for you in situations like that.
At least, that’s what I got from them. I became good at mimicking and accommodating allistic — non-autistic — people, but I didn’t know how to stand up for my own needs and desires as a person. I’m not entirely sure I even knew I could. I shaped myself into such a cypher that I actually made a few friends in my 20s who knew almost nothing about me after years of hanging out together.
So when I saw in Community Troy, the popular high school football hero, finding a kindred spirit in Abed and not just delighting in his differences but actually sharing a few of them, it was a revelation for me. For the first time in my life, I was seeing an outside example of how an autistic person might be able to form a mutually beneficial friendship with another person without having to fundamentally change or hide who they were.
It’s one reason I’m excited about Julia — but it’s an imperfect representation
In the wake of the announcement that Julia, an autistic Muppet, would make her television debut on Sesame Street this month, a lot of allistic people have been discussing how her presence on the show can raise awareness and help teach allistic children to be more understanding and inclusive.
I’ve written about how Julia, as imperfect as her representation of autism is, can potentially help save a new generation of kids from the kind of bullying I suffered in my own undiagnosed and misunderstood youth. But what few of us have mentioned is that this Muppet doesn’t just have the potential to teach allistic kids how to treat autistic kids better. She can also teach kids like me how to treat themselves better.
Take these two clips: one where Abby notices that Julia is humming “Sunny Days” to herself and initiates a sing-along, and one where Elmo sings the praises of playing side by side when Julia isn’t immediately interested in his suggestion of games.
When children who aren’t on the spectrum watch these clips, they’re learning how to treat their autistic peers like human beings with their own wants and needs.
When kids on the spectrum see those same segments, they are learning that it’s perfectly valid to have those needs and that friendship can and should be a mutual exchange. It doesn’t have to be an interaction where you have to pretend to be “normal” just to earn a modicum of tolerance.
Sesame Street’s use of Julia so far isn’t perfect. I wish the other Muppets and the adults around them didn’t spend so much time explaining Julia or talking over her. That’s a habit that allistics really shouldn’t pick up and autistics should not be taught to passively accept. But this is still an important step forward for a population that often has a unique relationship with the things we watch.
I’m a firm believer in the power of media representation for everyone. Seeing a part of yourself reflected back in the stories you love is an incredible experience, one that can make you feel like you matter, like you have a place in this world even — or especially — when you’re being yourself. If you’re a person who also relies on those stories to teach you about the world, meaningful representation also provides you with something else: a template to help you make all of those life-changing things a part of your reality.
Sarah Kurchak is a writer, autistic advocate, and retired professional pillow fighter from Toronto. Her work has appeared in outlets including the Guardian, the Establishment, Fusion, and Vice. Find her on Twitter @fodderfigure.