Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Julia the Muppet: Then and Now

Sesame Street moved Julia, a muppet whose character is autistic, from online only to the TV screen, and the story consumed a lot of my Twitter space. People are all happy she exists. People were happy when they announced her. I've seen lots of optimism, including from many, many, autistic people.

But that doesn't mean there aren't issues. One of my opening thoughts was that everything was focused on neurotypical kids learning about autism, rather than using Julia to help provide role models for autistic kids. Sesame Street has, of course, always been about diversity, and has always (well for a long time) included disability in their diversity.

But there are some issues, especially with the website, and we need to ask these questions: Does Julia speak or is she spoken for? Who is the subject here? Who is the expected audience?

Here's two things to read from writers who ID as autistic/neurodiverse AND as parents.
These are my stones. This website is not good. There’s too much that’s bad tipping the scales toward ableism and stigma. I hope Sesame Street listens. I think they can still fix this. Go back to the drawing board (literally and figuratively) with Julia, scrap everything else. Yep, scrap it. You made an autistic muppet, awesome. I love that she does happy flapping and loves to sing. Make her a real muppet. Make her part of the Sesame Street family. Let her talk instead of just talking about her. Let autistic kids see their reflection in her and feel that they are real people too, not monsters. Let them tell their own stories. Sesame Street has always known how to let kids be kids and they can do it again, and they can start now.
And now here is Biannon Lee:
Lee writes:
  • 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.
And Lee concludes:
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.
So, it's good to see Julia on air, but plenty of ways in which Sesame Street promotes ableist narratives rather than resists them.

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