Almost one-half century ago, Sesame Street began its remarkable run. By combining education and entertainment, it appealed to parents and children alike. At the present, it is seen in more than 140 countries. Even though it is considered a children’s show, it has never shied away from difficult, sensitive, and provocative subjects, such as race, death, and incarceration.
Earlier this month, a Muppet with autism joined the street gang. Her name is Julia. Julia’s puppeteer happens to be a mother of a child with autism. Creating Julia was no easy feat; rather she came about after numerous consultations with autism organizations, families with children with autism, professors in the field of disability studies, and the true experts, those with autism. Julia, like many with autism, flaps her hands when she gets excited, has difficulty making eye contact, and is both curious and smart. Through this arduous process, which lasted years, the creators wanted to make sure they did not stereotype or sugarcoat children on the autism spectrum. Sesame Street.
My family and I are big fans of the Muppets, as are many families in the autism community. My favorite character is Ernie, perhaps because I see a little bit of his impishness in me. Every time Jimmy and I go to the University of Maryland (UM) to catch a basketball or football game, we pay a visit to Jim Henson’s statue in front of the Student Union. Henson, who is an alum of UM, became famous in the 60’s when he joined Sesame Street and created most of its famous characters.
Our family is indebted to Henson and Sesame Street, in large part because it played such a pivotal role in Jimmy’s development. First, it supplemented the daily learning that took place in our home. This included teaching him new words, how to count (in both Spanish and English), and the alphabet. Moreover, Sesame Street gave us something to talk about, other than his preoccupation with what was happening in the days and months ahead. For a very long time, it was the only TV show that actually held Jimmy’s attention. He seemed to feel a connection with Sesame Street, partially due to the fact that it was funny, fast-paced, repetitive, and full of music.
Equally important, the values embedded in Sesame Street appeal to our family, values such as sharing, caring, respect, and cooperation. In a world where the sheer number of children with autism is increasing significantly each day, awareness of autism needs to go hand in hand with understanding. It has been our experience that awareness of autism is increasing, but there is a desperate need for more understanding. In a world where children with autism and other disabilities are at a high risk for social isolation and bullying, children without autism need to understand that people like Jimmy are not all that different from them. As a matter of fact, they are much more alike than they are different. And like everyone else, they want and need friends, just like Julia.
Please note: I am currently writing a book about my entire family and how we have grown over the years, in large part because of Jimmy. My son Jimmy is a middle-aged adult on the autism spectrum. The voices and perspectives of my two daughters and wife as well as other friends of Jimmy are included throughout. It is a real, uplifting, and remarkable story; one which I have wanted to share for a long time. The book will be published later this year.
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