Julia, Sesame Street and The Autism Controversy

You may not know this, but there is actually a big controversy going on at Sesame Street. They’ve introduced a new puppet, Julia. Sesame Street is attempting to introduce preschoolers to autism but not everyone is happy about it. In fact, some are downright upset. Let’s learn a little more about this puppet first.

Julia, Sesame Street and Autism

Julia, Sesame’s Street’s new puppet, debuted on PBS Kids and HBO on Monday, April 10th, 2017. In fact, before that, “60 Minutes” ran an entire episode about this character. (Note that video is sponsored by the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer. We’ll get to that a little later.”) This project has been in development for 3 years and is part of Sesame’s Street’s “See Amazing in All Children” initiative, which focuses on the abilities of kids with autism.

Stacey Gordon, the puppeteer who brings Julia to life, has an autistic son of her own. “It’s important for kids without autism to see what autism can look like.” She is very passionate about other kids learning this before they get to school in order to accept and embrace kids who have autism when they get to school.

If you watch the video, you’ll see that that Sesame Street claims they do understand that autism manifests differently in every person. (As the adage from dr. Stephen Shore goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”) And Julia does have some common symptoms that many have come to associate with classical autism.

So what’s the problem?

The Two Camps On Autism

Before I get into discussing the pitfalls of normalizing autism, I want to make sure you understand that not everyone views autism the same. I’m naturally on many, many lists with moms raising autistic children. You may be surprised to know that among my community, Julia has not been greeted with open arms.

In fact, many parents raising children with autism are split into two camps:

  • One camp believes that autism is either strictly or mostly a fixed, permanent neurological condition attributed to genetics. This group embraces the neurodiversity movement, which believes that autism and related conditions are natural, normal variations in the brain, should not be “cured,” and should be respected as such. Many in this movement are autistic self-advocates, but there are parents who embrace this as well.
  • The other camp disagrees with this assessment of their autistic child and believes that autism is caused by environmental conditions, usually a toxic overload, that can’t be handled by kids with certain genetic predispositions. (In case you’re wondering, I’m in this camp.) Let me make it clear that those who do believe their kids are brain injured are NOT prejudiced against those who support neurodiversity. However, we have followed the “smoking guns” that led to our children’s disabilities, or followed the stories of other parents, or we have seen our kids’ brains start functioning better after treating autism as a medical or environmentally caused condition. Typically, people in this group have children that left alone, will never have the ability to self-advocate. Our kids are varying degrees of nonverbal, many have severe intellectual disability (that is, low IQs, not just an inability to “test well”), physical disorders like constipation, diarrhea, epilepsy, sleeplessness, and other issues that cause them to lead a challenging life.

If Autism Is Medical

Ok, so why is this important?

One reason many parents are in this camp is because their children have “regressive autism,” that is, their children “suddenly” became autistic after developing normally. Commonly, this occurs after a particular event. Most often, parents say it occurs within hour or days of particular vaccines, HOWEVER others feel it’s due to an overwhelm of toxin insult on a child with certain genetic predispositions and/or inability to detoxify that no one is aware of at the time. Still others have implemented dietary changes, biomedical interventions and other alternative therapies that have RADICALLY changed and/or eliminated behaviors or medical issues (caused by autism).

My daughter had a disability at birth, she was diagnosed with sensory issues at age two and autism after age 3. I believe vaccines harmed her, as did other foods and chemicals that I thought were safe when she in my womb and as a baby. I now know the dangers of many of these items – plastics, sunscreen, pitocin, pesticides, ultrasounds, and so many more.

This is crucial because if the sharp rise in autism is indeed occurring from environmental causes, especially within a certain genetic predisposition, that means that severe, debilitating autism:

  1. can be treated and,
  2. can be prevented.

The Dangers of Normalizing Autism

Now we get to the crux of the issue for parents raising kids they are CERTAIN were not born with autism, and for parents who have treated the negative and harmful symptoms caused by autism (self-injury, epilepsy, gut disorders, etc.):

Normalizing autism removes the impetus to seek the medical, environmental and biological causes of autism.

That means, less funding into research that not only looks at genetic markers but also seeks the environmental triggers that affect the genes into manifesting into one of the many pathways that will develop into autism. There’s already been an impact on important research in this issue. Autism Speaks recently decided to stop all research related to medical/environmental issues. Read my 2012 post on why this organization ran more for profit and why I still refuse to light it up blue.

Why Parents Are NOT Embracing Julia on Sesame Street

So why are some parents against Julia? Sesame Street may be working to normalize autism, leading to negative impacts on important research. As I said, Julia does have some common unusual traits, but the question remains:

Does Julia sugarcoat the issue of severe autism?

Parents have experienced the following issues that I can promise you’ll never see or know about Julia on Sesame Street:

  • explosive diarrhea
  • head banging so severe kids have to wear helmets
  • inability to calm down in as short a time as Julia does (I already heard an autistic child who liked Julia didn’t understand why he couldn’t calm down that quickly)
  • overpowering violence directed at parents and other loved ones from kids who are grown
  • teens and adults in diapers, due to inability to potty train
  • severe eczema that makes clothing “painful”
  • pica
  • picking skin until it bleeds
  • the traumatic effect of puberty
  • children who are bullied
  • violence and sexual abuse directed towards them
  • depression and suicide
  • seizures that occur so often that a child becomes intellectually disabled
  • severe intellectual disability
  • inability to sleep, which is way WAY worse than it sounds
  • dental issues
  • heavy metal issues due to an inability to detox metals the way the rest of us do
  • shortened life span
  • autism wandering
  • inability to recognize & understand danger, which is by there is an increased chance of fatalities for those diagnosed with autism

And lets think about the kids who have disorders related to autism or the varieties of autism, according to the Autism Research Institute, including:

  • Angelman Syndrome
  • Asperger’s Syndrome
  • Fragile X Syndrome
  • Lanau-Kleffner Syndrome
  • Prader-Willi Syndrome
  • Rett Syndrome
  • Tardive Dyskinesia
  • Williams Syndrome

And Everyone Else…

Because Julia from Sesame Street displays only certain symptoms, she won’t display them all and, in that, there is the danger of a caricature being made of people with autism. For example, it’s been said in the past that almost all autistic people are:

  • strictly literal and can’t understand abstract issues like spirituality
  • can’t be touched
  • can’t show love and affection
  • don’t like hugs or kisses
  • can never make eye contact

You get the picture. In fact, my daughter can do almost all those things…and I’m sure that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I don’t want people limiting her because they stereotype autism nor do I want preschoolers to grow up thinking, “THIS is autism, what do you have?”

Julia Is Not The Solution For Autism

If we stop looking at the growing body of evidence that shows that autism is linked to the environment with certain genetic predispositions, how are we helping our children? How can we stop the rising tide of diagnosis, if we are not willing to look at cutting edge research that shows that toxins can and do negatively impact the development of certain cells in the brain, cells that can be protected and sometimes repaired?

Now, as a champion for inclusion, I want children to know and accept my autistic daughter. In this aspect, perhaps Julia can help.

But when I watch a show sponsored by Pfizer introducing this puppet, and when I see episodes of “Sesame Street” and other PBS Shows (many of them) pushing vaccination on families who who don’t know that there are scientific studies that supports a link, I have to wonder if there may be some other reason for developing this character. Is there something more going on, or am I being paranoid? I do live in a world where the head of a local, powerful children’s hospital has said, “each infant would have the theoretical capacity to respond to about 10,000 vaccines at any one time” while simultaneously ignoring the fact that multiple viruses in a single vaccine do lead to an increased chance of vaccine injury.

I also live in a world where the right to refuse vaccines based on religious beliefs is under attack. In the U.S., some states are trying to take away even more medical rights from parents, while others have kidnapped and forcibly medicated children against event their own will.

The way I see it, hard questions about whether or not an agenda exists behind “normalizing” autism have to be asked.

How To Make Julia & Sesame Street Better

I’m not saying they should take Julia off Sesame Street, as children have already responded positively, but let’s have some more realistic episodes. She’s a puppet, right? Let’s have Elmo talk to her mom about why she can’t be potty trained. Ever. Let’s have a PSA type of episode on what to do if you see an autistic child have a seizure. Could you imagine Julia walking on set with a helmet to protect her from injury due to head banging? What about addressing biting others? I want to really see how they ABA their way out of that one.

But hey, this is PBS so I’m not optimistic, although I’m willing to bet you *might* get an episode about her medications or how Julia takes her vaccines like a champ.

What do you think? How do you feel about Julia, Sesame Street and autism?

  1. I have seen the episodes of Julia on Sesame Street and so did my three years old daughter. She had a positive reaction towards Julia and mimics her hugging and saying “that’s what friends are for.” By profession, I am also a nurse who specializes in pediatric care of all types. I agree with you that Julia does not “fully” express autism and its struggles. Since Julia just made her debut, I am seeing the first few episode as an “introduction” to her character which will, with any luck, slowly educate children about autism as more episodes are broadcast. I am also hoping that they add episodes that show the real situations behind autism without having to sugar coat them (like what you said with your example with Elmo).

    • Hi Edana! I’m glad that your child had a positive reaction. I hope they will go deeper, and I hope that we can see Julia as an entry to kids who have less of the stereotypical idea of autism. My kids are past the age of Sesame Street but I will keep an eye on how they implement future episodes that feature Julia. (PS, it’s funny, I actually thought Abby Cadabby was autistic…she reminds me of my kid only verbal!