A quick run-down of what I loved about Julia, and what has me concerned.
This morning I woke to a few posts in my social media feeds about the ‘new’ muppet to hit Sesame Street, Julia. She’s an autistic 4yo with red hair, green eyes, a stuffed toy, and a really, really big smile. She loves picking flowers and painting.
I’m an autistic parent with three kids, including autistic almost-4yo twins. One of my twins has a lot in common with Julia. She identifies as a girl, has short red hair, and loves singing, picking flowers and painting. (But in a departure from Julia she’s got a bit more of a determined-badass-femme energy than smiley-giggley muppet Julia!)
I have to be honest, when I saw this hit social media today, I rolled my eyes and sighed the big sighs. I decided there was no way I was going to go near Sesame Street’s Julia.
Last year, when Sesame Street launched Julia, I was furious that she was an online-only muppet who didn’t get to appear on TV like the other muppets. I was also sad that she had no voice of her own. Julia and her autistic experience were ‘splained in a book by her non-autistic friend, Elmo. What’s more, the associated materials on the Sesame website included distressing videos of children having their bodily autonomy disrespected and being talked over by their parents like narrated zoo exhibits.
Erin Human wrote a critique of Sesame’s Julia and associated autism resources that I encourage you to read to understand why autistic people and our friends were really upset with Sesame and their portrayal of Julia.
But then, this morning, on instagram, Not Your Neurotypical Girl posted some more positive comments about autistic muppet Julia. I decided to take a look at the video segments Sesame have shared with us on YouTube. I’ve linked the playlist at the end of this post.
The six clips released by Sesame include two of Julia singing with her muppet friends and four of her playing with them. Julia is portrayed in these segments as a pretty happy muppet, smiling and giggling. She doesn’t speak a lot of words but does sing a lot. The muppets, particularly Abby Cadabby and Elmo, want to be friends and play and sing with her, and she wants to play with them too. They blow bubbles, play with stuffed toys, and play tag.
What we can love:
- There is an autistic muppet. On the TV. On a show my kids watch and lots of other little people watch.
- Some Autistic ways of moving our body and engaging with people are represented and accepted. Julia flaps when she is happy, and her friend Abby Cadabby joins in flapping her wings. Nobody forces Julia to make eye contact or say hello. Julia bounces when she’s having fun and looks away when people get too intense with her.
- Julia’s friends follow her lead in play, and they understand that sometimes they can play beside her without forcing her to interact. They notice and value when she has ideas about how to change play and do things differently. For example, a game of tag turns in to boing-tag because Julia is bouncing along with her friend Abby. Both singing segments involve singing initiated by Julia with her friends joining in.
What I am not so sure about:
- I think that Julia’s friends have a little bit of an older-kid-little-kid / neurotypical-kid-disabled-kid patronising vibe about the way they speak to and accommodate her. I assumed Abby Cadabby and Elmo were older but checked and they’re both supposed to be 3yo. Bummer. I hate it when people use that kind of patronising tone with my children. Maybe it makes me more sensitive to it and others won’t read their interactions this way?
- Julia can’t represent all autistic kids, because we are all so different. Sesame have gone with some stereotypes here which frustrate me (at the same time as I understand why).
- Julia is super chirpy and that irks me only because I’m a little more Oscar the Grouch than Julia. But this is a kids show, right?
What’s really not OK:
- Articles are suggesting that in the full episodes, it is the adults on the show and the muppet friends who describe autism and Julia’s needs to others. I really want so much for children to be able to describe what autism means to them and it’s sad if it does turn out that the adults and other kids talk for Julia in the show.
- The Sesame Street and autism resources on their website haven’t changed and are still just as icky as when autistic people criticised them in 2015. My advice is to steer clear of Sesame’s website.
- Julia is a muppet’with autism’ and ‘affected by autism’… I won’t go in to that argument much here, but it’s a pretty clear indication that autism is seen as an add-on issue for Julia, rather than an integral part of her identity that we can celebrate and/or that Sesame consulted mostly with non-autistic people when they created her.
- The media and social media surrounding Julia right now is seriously lacking autistic voices. Autistic Self Advocacy Network did confirm they were consulted in Julia’s development, but don’t seem to have been involved much in the launch. It’s hard watching the world talk about you, without talking to you. My kids have valuable things to say about their lives and their experiences, and what they think about their representation on TV. Speaking of…
What my children thought
- Their favourite segments were watching Julia pop bubbles with Abby and sing twinkle twinkle with Elmo
- My eldest said he didn’t care that the character was autistic because he doesn’t like Sesame Street 😉
- My twins were interested in the fact that she’s autistic for about two seconds and then they got back to the business of enjoying watching her pop bubbles.
What’s next for Julia:
Sesame Street has released six YouTube segments, but her full debut on our TV screens is 10 April during a special ‘Meet Julia’ episode. I am really hoping autistic Julia is someone we can love, who is accepted and valued for being autistic, and not someone who gets talked over by her friends and adults in her life.
Autistic Julia the muppet joins Sesame Street – Sesame Street and autism YouTube playlist
Please note: The new videos are the first 6. I didn’t watch the rest as they’re from 2015 and I am still grossed out by some of that content so decided not to venture there