Photo by Nanci Hutson.
New Muppet brings spectrum disorder to mainstream
Joanna Sweeney is a believer that every person has their share of quirks, but that in no way should diminish their worth.
That conviction is why she is so delighted that Sesame Street this month introduced a new Muppet character on the popular children’s television show.
The red-haired puppet, Julia, is a 4-year-old who loves to paint and pick flowers, but can sometimes repeat herself and others, or may be concentrating on her own activities and might miss social cues, such as answering a greeting from a fellow character. Sometimes she appears to be in her own little world.
Julia is on the autism spectrum, the first new Sesame Street character introduced on the program in a decade. The newest member of the Muppet family that was first introduced in 2015 as a Sesame Street book character is portrayed by Phoenix puppeteer Stacey Gordon, the mother of a son diagnosed with autism. Gordon said she could not comment for the story, and Sesame Street publicity officials did not return messages related to the issue.
'Autism isn’t scary'
Sweeney, the Prescott mother of four children, her two youngest that are now adolescents were diagnosed in early childhood with autism, said Julia’s presence on the show is yet another way of heightening awareness about autism so children and adults alike can recognize that the disorder need not be feared.
“Autism isn’t scary,” Sweeney said of the condition that can manifest itself in behaviors she said might seem a “little wonky” but then “everybody’s a little wonky.”
Her daughter, Keagan, 16, and son Ben, 13, both have limited verbal communication and are homeschooled. Yet they are very much aware of their surroundings and can respond to conversation and commands. Both are very creative, and can are able to utilize computer technology to translate their ideas into product designs. They play in a “challenge” softball league and enjoy family outings just as do their elder siblings.
The two were the family’s inspiration for creation of a clothing line called “Beyond the Label” that provides casual apparel such as T-shirts and sweatshirts with various positive message logos and tactile fabrics intended to offer comfort to their wearers. An example would be a tie-dyed sweatshirt with a pocket lined with a soft, nubby chenille or a towel-like, long-strand fiber or sequins.
Just like Julia, Sweeney said her children’s concentration, or lack thereof, can sometimes be misinterpreted by others. At times their communication and physical responses differ from their peers. On the show, the other Muppet characters accept, and appreciate, Julia’s differences as part of her personality that makes her a unique friend.
The founder of ASCEND (Autism Spectrum Center for Educational and Neurological Development), Angela Levin, said she, too, is proud Sesame Street introduced a character that exhibits authentic traits similar to those of her students, as well as her now young adult son, Cade.
“They’re not sugar-coating anything,” Levin said.
One ASCEND graduate who is now a staff member, Aubry Fisher, posted on her Facebook page that she wishes Julia was introduced 15 years ago when she found it so difficult to make friends.
Julia is evidence that children with autism are “not less than, but just a little different,” Fisher described.
One in 68 children born in the United States today is diagnosed with some form of autism.
Levin and Sweeney said education efforts about autism are critical because without proper understanding people have unrealistic expectations or pass judgment when what is needed is compassion.
Sesame Street has long been a children’s show focused on teaching tolerance of differences and such basic moral values as kindness, respect and integrity, Sweeney said. Julia’s addition is just another effort to broaden awareness that may be aimed at children but will spread to parents and other adults, she said.
Julia opens a door into the reality that children with autism deserve acceptance and friendship the same as any other child, Sweeney sand Levin said.
For the month of April, the Sweeney family dyed their hair royal blue, the color selected to reflect National Autism Awareness Month. Sweeney said she hopes it might prompt conversation as they are out and about in town, whether it is visiting their favorite deli, going to the movies or shopping at the local grocery store. She also wants to embolden other families who may have children with special needs to be confident that they are not alone. She doesn’t want anyone to be afraid to let their children explore the world around them.
“They just want to be loved” Sweeney said as her daughter dances to a cartoon she watches on a hand-held computer tablet. “You just have to let them be people.”