By Jill Escher
My daughter Sophie may not need much of a Halloween costume this year. She is the born embodiment of the latest American cultural icon, Julia, the first Muppet to have autism.
What, did the producers from Sesame Street secretly stalk my kid when plotting Julia's character development? The excited hand-flapping, the "this is too much for me" ear-plugging, the minimum language with the undercurrent of social longing, the object-attachment, the delight in small things, the big-eyed adorableness, and even the bang-chop haircut. The girls are veritable twinsies inside and out.
So imagine the relief when I can tell strangers, "Sorry, Sophie has autism, you know, just like Julia on Sesame Street." Implied in those italics is not just the girls' similarity, but a broader message: "Lots of kids now have this neurodevelopmental disability, that's how they are hard-wired, there are now so many that they've become a Muppet, and we accept and celebrate them, just like all kids. Yes, they behave differently (so sorry Sophie just startled you with her screeching), but please just chill."
When you see my nonverbal autistic 18 year-old son accompanying me in the women's room, just chill. When my daughter doesn't respond to your greeting but instead excitedly taps at her iPad, just chill. When you see a boy throwing a tantrum, covering his ears at the supermarket, just chill. When you meet a young man who describes train schedules for hours at a time, just chill, hey, even join him in conversation. When you see a boy bullied at school, stop it and protect him. It's autism, it's become a common disability, and every neighborhood in our country is affected, including Sesame Street.
Now, I'm not suggesting that we "just chill" about the stunning surge in autism rates, or "just chill" about the historical and biological factors that may be driving the underlying neurological dysfunctions, or "just chill" about the need to reinvent public policy to provide care for the burgeoning population of adults with autism—these are matters of utmost urgency.
But I am suggesting that the orange-coiffed slightly cross-eyed Muppet is doing an entire generation of affected children and their families a huge favor—inviting more understanding, more acceptance, more neighborliness overall. I bet even Oscar will come to love her.