I’ll admit it. Every time I see a clip of Julia, the newest muppet in the Sesame Street crew, I start to cry. Because Julia isn’t meant to represent just any old four year old, she is a fun-loving, sweet, creative little girl. And, she also has autism.
Watching Julia is like traveling back in time, and watching my son, Gabriel, when he was four years old. He had a huge smile, he loved playing with bubbles, and he was great at noticing tiny details that other people missed.
And yet, with all the joy I feel today in watching Gabriel as he interacts with the world in his own, unique way… I didn’t feel that joy then. All I felt was worry. Gabriel was different… and that was NOT okay.
For me, seeing Big Bird and Elmo embrace their new friend, Julia is magical. I hear Abby Kadabby say to the camera, “This is our friend, Julia, and she is very special to us.” and I feel as though she is talking directly to me. Not to the me of today, but to the me of six years ago, who worried her son would never be special to anyone outside of our home.
When you become the parent of a child with a disability, you are thrust into many roles. Chief medical coordinator, head therapy scheduler, master IEP interpreter. All of these titles (and their responsibilities) become yours to master. For me, the most important and most challenging role, has been the role of primary advocate for my son. It is my job to teach the world about autism, and about my son in particular. It is my job to help the people we meet at our schools, camps, synagogues, sports programs, and other institutions learn how to accommodate Gabriel’s special needs.
And this is where, especially at the beginning, I felt I was flying without a net. When we first received an autism diagnosis for our son, I felt doomed to a life living on the margins of society. I felt sure he would never go to a mainstream school, never play on a sports team, never perform in a concert. Why? Because I’d never encountered someone with autism in these settings.
Gradually, I learned that my son has a right to be included, but this inclusion would not take place on it’s own.
And so I speak up. I intervene on the playground, and facilitate play between my son and other kids, helping them find ways to play together successfully. I speak up in my synagogue, and help create opportunities for kids with disabilities to engage with the community. I speak up at PTO meetings and offer insight into the importance and the benefits of inclusion. I speak up… but sometimes it’s challenging, or awkward, and I often wonder if I’m over-sharing, or saying the wrong thing, or crossing a line with my requests.
Watching the Sesame Street gang interact with Julia provided a window to me about what was missing when I first became an autism mom. Big Bird is confused by Julia’s behavior. He doesn’t know how to interact with her. In a calm and loving manner, Elmo, Abby and Gordon present some facts to Big Bird. They demonstrate their love for Julia, and they teach Big Bird the skills he needs in order to befriend Julia. As a group, they demonstrate that there is a place for Julia in the Sesame Street community, and as a group, they make the accommodations that Julia needs in order to feel comfortable.
How I wish Julia had been around when my child was first diagnosed with autism! It would have given me hope that my child would be accepted and loved by his community the way Julia was accepted and loved by hers. It also would have given me the boost of confidence I needed to speak up more frequently and with more certainty.
And so, from this mom and proud autism advocate, I’d like to offer a heartfelt thank you to the creators of Sesame Street. Thank you for bringing Julia to Sesame Street. Her presence will make a world of difference to the next generation of kids with autism, and their communities.
Alison Auderieth Lobron is a wife, teacher and mom living in Newton, MA. She works in the field of children’s social and emotional development. Alison is the creator of the blog The View Through Autism Glasses, in which she writes about lessons she is learning while parenting her two very different children.