Guest Blog Post by Sara Liss
I wish that Julia the Muppet from Sesame Street had existed when I was a toddler and first learning (not very successfully) to interact with other kids. I was desperate to play with someone other than my baby sister, her baby playmates, and our family friends. I didn’t know how to connect with the other kids my age, and most of them preferred for me to stay away. One or two of the girls at my preschool either liked me or took pity on me, on their own or with adult encouragement, and were my sometimes-playmates. I don’t think my pre-school teachers assigned them to me as playmates, the way my teachers did every year from pre-K to 4th grade.
I can say, though, that the only social interaction was the time my not-quite-friend Melissa invited me to play with her outside and then told off another girl who didn’t want Melissa to play with me. I guard that memory carefully, clinging to it as I try to forget the times I stood at the play kitchen or sand table minutes after the other girls had used them, trying to pretend I wasn’t alone.
I can remember most of the Sesame Street episodes and skits broadcast between 1989 and 2000. I’m 29 years old and my youngest sibling is 23, and my brother’s occupational therapist and later babysitter had a burning hatred of Barney, which means I know the songs from that era word-for-word almost two decades later. Back then, there were no openly autistic faces to us to latch on to as role models.
Sesame Street, so progressive that it moved its new programming to HBO to keep social conservatives from trying to kill the show entirely, was no stranger to disability even then. Linda, a Deaf woman who debuted on the show in 1973, already teaching children how to sing in ASL back in 1976. Tarah, who had osteogenesis imperfecta, was showing off her skills as a wheelchair ballerina in 1993. But there still wasn’t anyone on Sesame Street with disabilities that also affected their minds.
(In the world of disability inclusion, disability is always physical first and mental/cognitive second, unless there’s been another mass shooting and we’re desperate to find something besides a gun to blame.).
When I was a child, Sesame Street coded characters as autistic–the Count, of course, and also sometimes Bert. Most autistic kids identified with the Count. (Personally, I found him terrifying, and may or may not have run away from him and his scary mountain and scary bats at least once. He wasn’t quite as scary as Ursula from The Little Mermaid, though, so I still have “The Lambaba” word-perfect two decades later.)
I myself adored Bert, and, according to family lore, actually teethed on his nose. Most of all, what resounded with me was his bemusement at Ernie’s version of logic, which made literal sense and was reasonable from Ernie’s point of view, but always led him to the wrong conclusion. (The cookies in bed sketch, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpozspIMH9E, is a classic example.)
I had another kind of kinship with Kermit the Frog, who wasn’t a resident of Sesame Street but appeared in enough skits as a reporter covering Fairy Tale News for me to claim him for this essay. I was drawn to his high anxiety levels, his endless attempts to get everyone to just *listen to him* to get everything in order for once in their lives, and the way heightened emotions stole his words and left him with screaming, flailing, and flapping as his only way to communicate.
But Kermit was never coded as autistic, not as far as I can tell. He was rather a giant ball of anxiety, almost certainly depressed, in an on-and-off relationship with an amazing woman who could have been a great partner for literally anyone else. [This is not an essay on the many, many wonders of Miss Piggy. Nor is it an essay on how the stereotype of a hen-picked husband needs to be rended from tip to toe and thrown to the piranhas. I can write that essay some other time, if anyone is interested, but I’m currently wearing my Joyful Autistic hat, and the Raging Feminist one will have to wait.]
Julia is different. Julia is openly autistic and doesn’t apologize for it. She has a home on Sesame Street and doesn’t need to be “fixed” to keep it. She’s not a single obsession, a savant, or a machine who needs to be programmed with the “right” words or social skills.
I look at Julia and see an autistic girl–an actual GIRL–who STIMS! and who is EMOTIONAL, so much so that her body can’t contain it! who USES HER BODY TO COMMUNICATE HER FEELINGS! She doesn’t need speech to express herself, and can say more with her body than words can contain, even when the NTs foreign to her world don’t understand what she means. She’s silly and goofy and strange and people LIKE HER FOR IT.
My new friend Julia has *real* friends, friends who didn’t need anyone to tell them that Julia was lonely because she was different and needed a special buddy to help her feel the same as everyone else.
Her friends think of her as an equal, not as a Special Task the grown-ups trust them with. Her friends don’t exploit her oddities for their own amusement or make fun of her in ways they know she can’t understand. They don’t leave her in favor of her “normal” friends when she breaks social taboos, and don’t leave her when she can’t answer their questions about who she is, or how she thinks, or why she can’t be like everybody else no matter how hard she tries. Her friends are the non-disabled peers I loved and followed as a child but could never seem to keep, the people I broke by getting too close when I was hopelessly broken.
It wasn’t until my second year of college that I found friends who embraced me and the autistic parts of my soul but weren’t autistic themselves. Calling them NT is probably a stretch. I’m pretty sure there’s *something* ND about people who creep along public streets in broad daylight pretending to be a raptor, complete with sound effects, and completely sober; and all of us had trouble passing in so-called normal culture.
They were and are more like me than any non-autistic person than I’d ever known. They love my flappy rants about administrative law at New Yorker speed, the same way I love their shared horror of the Twilight movies. We’re entertained, sometimes enraptured, frequently clueless, and sooner or later, baffled at why we’re still talking. They’ll probably never know why I’m so obsessed with the Chevron doctrine, and I will never understand what possessed them to go to the midnight release of the first Twilight movie. And that’s okay. We’re oddballs, but that’s a feature, not a bug.
I can’t be certain, I don’t think I’d have spent 20 years waiting to find friends who could love my autistic soul but not have their own to match if I’d met Julia the same day I met Big Bird, Mr. Snuffleupagus, and Elmo. I don’t think I’d have gone 29 years without being diagnosed, making 3 separate trips to Albany to be evaluated just so I could prove a point. I don’t think my dad would shy away from me every time I talk about being autistic because he’d thought my mind was fine and never considered my social issues might be so “bad” I needed a disorder to describe them. And I don’t think my first female fictional friend would have been Baby Bop just because she was a girl, and there weren’t any girls on Sesame Street.
Sesame Workshop is finally teaching kids that autistic people are people worth the same as anyone else, even if their minds aren’t fine. Her Muppet friends Elmo and Abby know that she’s their equal. She can love and be loved without trying to make her life a game of pretend, a game there’s no way for her to win. She speaks with her loud hands and loud arms and loud body. She speaks in the wordless sounds she makes and the rest of the world tries to interpret, sometimes correctly, sometimes wrongly, and sometimes looking for meaning that words can’t express at all.
There’s a lot of Julia in me. I see her and I want to keep her safe from a world that sees difference and tries to fix it, even when there’s nothing to be fixed. I want to protect her from a world that demands conformity at any price, and punishes us when hurting ourselves is the only way to comply.
At the same time, I look at Julia and see a girl like me in the safest place I’ve ever known, who sees and does things differently and who isn’t scolded for it. I see adults who see her as a person, a *disabled* person, autistic through and through, and still knows she exists for her own sake. I see a fictional world that’s taught tens of millions of young children over generations numbers and letters and skipping rhymes and phrases like “please” and “thank you.” I see a powerful force in children’s education telling Americans everywhere to welcome me as I am. I see a world that’s always tried to include everyone, desperately trying to teach us to better people, and see that in this better world, there’s a place for me.
I wish that when I was little, I’d seen a girl like Julia on Sesame Street, and seen Sesame Street embrace her. I’m not a child anymore, but I’m so, so glad that she’s here now, and here for me.