"My patience for what I’ll call Hollywood Autism has grown quite thin."
Most are aware that Sesame Street has a new Muppet with Autism named Julia. My first reaction to the news was a lean to the cynical side, a place where I admittedly spend time on occasion. My patience for what I’ll call Hollywood Autism has grown quite thin. The Hollywood Autism world is made up of quirky folks who’ve overcome and triumphed, they aren’t disabled they are just neurodiverse. Hollywood Autism usually involves a quirky, odd duck boy who’s well intentioned parents are at first in denial, then realization and then warrior mode where-by they fight the school, the doctors and anyone else who stands in the way of their child's success. The boy at some point will be a) bullied by classmates, b) misunderstood by his teachers and c) have a crush on a girl but not know to express this in a socially appropriate manner. There will be a crisis, a meltdown and then everyone, even the curmudgeon old grandpa who thought the kid was just a “rascal” will work together and march toward a brighter future. The boy will start to be accepted; the girl will smile and ask to sit with him at lunch. The whole thing will be topped off by his winning the school spelling bee, being voted Prom King and getting into college. Cue the credits.
I cringe when someone brings up Mozart or Einstein as examples of people with Autism. “Oh, your son has Autism; didn’t Einstein have that, is he good at math”? No, we don’t have that kind of Autism. He also cannot earn an income counting cards in Vegas as in Rain Man, but that portrayal is much closer to our reality. The Autism in our house is more run of the mill, less “Hollywood”. Our Autism is the “will my son have friends, get a job, move out, eat a new food without crying, be able to handle a change in routine, stop repeating videos and flapping” type. It’s messier and not as made for TV. I don’t begrudge anyone their triumph over life’s challenges but Autism comes wrapped in many packages. It just so happens our package doesn’t play as well for the cameras.
Recently I was lucky to perform at a conference where I met someone with close ties to Sesame Street’s Julia. Frank Campagna aka Autism Daddy writes a blog about his not so Hollywood version of life with an Autistic child. He holds nothing back and explains in funny and poignant detail how life unfolds at the other end of the spectrum. Frank also happens to work at Sesame Workshop. Knowing Frank had close ties to Julia gave me hope for the first Muppet with Autism.
Julia does not represent every person with Autism but they have captured the spirit in a way that helps break down barriers and build understanding. Kids watching this show will recognize Julia in some of their classmates and will hopefully understand and embrace the Julia’s they encounter. Happy to have my cynicism proven wrong and hoping Julia will remain on Sesame Street, far from Hollywood.