By Barb Arland-Fye
Sesame Street’s Kermit the Frog rests comfortably on my older son Colin’s bed, a nighttime companion of 25 years or so. The black irises have vanished from Kermit’s eyes and his skinny legs and arms dangle precariously from his well-worn green body after all these years of loving. “Do you remember Sesame Street?” I asked Colin after learning that a new character with autism, 4-year-old Julia, is being added to the program during April, which is Autism Awareness Month.Other than Kermit the Frog, Colin doesn’t remember any specific Sesame Street characters or episodes. Julia’s TV debut on April 10 has the potential to heighten awareness and acceptance of children with autism.
Hopefully, that will translate into greater understanding and patience for adults like Colin with autism. The good news comes at a time of multiple changes for Colin. While individuals with autism should not be stereotyped, one common characteristic is an aversion to change. The anxiety can push Colin into resorting to childish responses (and what adult isn’t guilty of that once in a while?).
While talking with Colin about the new character on Sesame Street and his uneasy week, I asked: “Do you remember what autism is?” “It’s a disability,” he answered while rocking contently in a rocking chair in our home. Breanna, a young woman who works with Colin, interjected: “Remember, Colin, how you know all about the presidents and atlases and how you’re so good at keeping track of appointments and schedules?”
Breanna’s response served as an epiphany moment for me. While I worried about the “disability” and its impact on his daily life, she focused on the “ability,” the gifts I take for granted. Some of those gifts come from within: his endearing personality, a genuine acceptance of others and a faith in God based in trust that God is present. But the gifts also include individuals, companions on the journey who look out for Colin’s well-being. It’s not just us, his parents and his younger brother. What a blessing!
A few articles I’ve read about Sesame Street’s Julia say that she is the first new character the children’s television program has introduced in a decade. “Presenting Julia to the gang requires a bit more explanation of her differences and hidden talents,” writes David Folkenflik, a media correspondent for NPR News. “Big Bird has to repeat himself to get her to listen, for example. And she sees things where others don’t.” Among Julia’s talents are her drawing skills, Folkenflik notes in his March 20 article.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that one in 68 American children has autism, a lifelong brain development disorder that impacts social interactions, learning and communication. Individuals with autism span a range of abilities.
Sesame Workshop, the show’s parent corporation, worked with parents of children with autism and experts in the field to develop Julia’s character, writes Newsweek reporter Jessica Wapner. “The character is a tool for families with children with autism and may also help destigmatize autism,” states Sesame Workshop’s Sherrie Westin in the March 20 Newsweek article.
But something else Westin said in the NPR article resonated with me. “It’s what Sesame does best, you know: Reaching children, looking at these things through their lens and building a greater sort of sense of commonality.”
Maybe all of us would benefit from tuning into Sesame Street (Julia’s TV debut is April 10 on HBO and PBS) for a lesson in building a greater sense of commonality. Jesus called us to love one another, but maybe that message will sink in if we consider it through the eyes of the child in us.
(Editor Barb Arland-Fye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)