Dustin Hoffman’s eccentric portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in the 1988 classic Rain Man popularized the autistic individual on an unprecedented scale. Overnight, autism became associated with extraordinary savant skills (memory and math), and quirky behaviours – with the corresponding social difficulties and odd mannerisms.
Media portrayals of autism since Rain Man have often obscured autism rather than illuminated this complex condition. Jim Parsons’ Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory is often described as a poster boy for Asperger’s syndrome, but he too is an exceptional case of savant traits (eidetic memory, extraordinarily high IQ), and verbal fluency that is non-existent for many on the Autism Spectrum.
Is it not time for popular media to address autism accurately in programming, given that approximately 1 in 68 children in North America are autistic?
Sesame Street recently added its first autistic character – a 4-year-old girl, Julia – to its permanent roster. While this news may make some autistic people, like autism advocates and medical professionals, skeptical, they should instead rejoice.
Julia has traits that could be considered high-functioning autism (HFA), a now defunct category of autism diagnosis (everything falls under Autism-Spectrum Disorder or ASD in the current medical literature). She uses a limited vocabulary but assists her fellow characters with logical reasoning and problem solving, a trait many with autism consider critical to navigating a confusing world. She also loves to play and do things in her own way.
Julia may represent a small slice of the autism pizza, but she does so in a natural, lovable, and unique way, endearing her audience while carefully showing her difficulties associated with being autistic.
Toronto-based speaker, writer, and autism advocate Daniel Share-Storm believes Sesame Street is heading in the right direction. In the entertainment industry, people on the autism spectrum are highly underrepresented, he says, especially in creative or directing roles. Children’s shows like Sesame Street need to communicate “acceptance and understanding” as many young children feel “broken, marginalized, and misunderstood.”
With conviction he adds, “Autism is not a mental illness or a defect, it is another way of being human.”
Watching Sesame Street, autistic children can now connect with a character, a role model, and a digital friend to show that they too are included, matter significantly, and can have fun like anyone else.
Autistic children, (and adults) should not be at the mercy of the non-autistic world. With reasonable accommodation and support, autistic children can thrive and make exceptional contributions to humanity. If Sesame Street can succeed with Julia, they will be a leader for all children’s entertainment, championing autism and inspiring autistic children in diverse, inclusive, and ultimately wonderful directions.
Special Thanks to Daniel Share-Storm for his insight on autism and knowledge of the entertainment industry.
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