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Sesame Street’s partnership with Autism Speaks is a tragedy

On April 10, 2017, the popular children’s show Sesame Street aired the episode “Meet Julia,” introducing Julia, a muppet on the autism spectrum. Julia displays a number of common characteristics associated with autism, such as sensitivity to loud noises, difficulty making eye contact, and echolalia (the imitation and repetition of words, sounds, or sentences). The episode does a remarkable job of not only identifying these characteristics, but contextualizing them.

For instance, Julia’s echolalia is shown not just as a neurological quirk, but as a valid form of communication; she repeats other characters’ words back to them to make her own points understood. One aspect of the episode I particularly appreciated was the moment when an adult character, Alan, explains to Big Bird that Julia is autistic and adds that “she likes people to know that [about her],” demonstrating respect for Julia’s autonomy that is rare in media portrayals of autism. 

The show also demonstrates how allistic (non-autistic) people can include autistic children in their lives by adapting to autistic children’s desires and needs. When Julia begins bouncing up and down during a game of tag, another muppet exclaims, “It’s boing tag! Great idea, Julia!” and begins bouncing with her, incorporating something Julia enjoys (bouncing) into the game. Parents of both autistic and allistic children reported that Julia had helped them and/or their children to understand and accept autism. All in all, Julia seemed like a groundbreaking step forward for autistic representation—which made Sesame Street’s recent step backward all the more devastating. 

In July 2019, Sesame Street began partnering with the popular charity Autism Speaks, using the character of Julia as a springboard for advertisements promoting early screening and diagnosis for autism. These public service announcements direct viewers to a page that links to, among other “resources,” the Autism Speaks 100 Day Kit for Young Children

This kit, which is intended to help parents of autistic children cope with receiving their child’s diagnosis, manages to promote a wide variety of harmful narratives about autism. It likens receiving a child’s diagnosis of autism to having a dead or dying child, detailing how parents may go through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance). It also recommends medically unsupported tactics such as putting autistic children on a gluten-free and dairy-free diet, which may sound familiar to anyone who has heard something along the lines of “You have depression? Have you tried doing yoga?”

The kit also claims that Autism Speaks is making progress in the search for a cure for autism and encourages parents not to “give up hope,” locating the problems faced by children with autism in the disorder itself rather than in the ableism and lack of support they receive in their daily lives. While Autism Speaks has publicly claimed to be moving away from the “search for a cure,” their use of the 100 Day Kit indicates otherwise. As an organization led by non-autistic people, including a vice president who has admitted to considering killing her autistic daughter, this is far from the first time Autism Speaks has spoken over and negatively impacted autistic people with their supposed efforts to help.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, which aided in the development of Julia, has cut ties with Sesame Street over their partnership with Autism Speaks and publicly spoken out against the show’s actions. I can only hope that this and other public backlash will inspire Sesame Street to reconsider who they support, and decide to stand with autistic children rather than with ableist adults.

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