Sesame Street and Autism: Not Just for Kids

Sesame Street has just unveiled an autism initiative. The show is introducing a new muppet with autism named Julia, and the website has a new section devoted to autism. The section leads off with The “Amazing” Song and then includes eight videos of real families, one animated short created by a team of autistic individuals, a story book about Elmo introducing Julia to another friendly, furry muppet named Abby, and some brief resources for parents and kids about befriending a child with autism and asking supportive questions to caregivers.

My first, completely genuine response is Hooray! The series is thoughtful, honest, and positive. I only cringe when we are told that a little boy is being taught to make eye contact (I’m of the camp that believes forcing eye contact hinders the autist’s efforts to interact, even if I don’t understand it.), but people who know me know that a single, tiny cringe from a whole series constitutes a major endorsement. I like that the series includes a diverse group of young children with autism, both ethnically diverse and diverse in terms of their autistic expression. Some of the children are verbal and one communicates exclusively through a tablet and gestures. All of the human (in contrast to the animated) families include siblings, and I love the commentaries and images of the sibs as they interact with their autistic brothers and sisters. None of these children express pity or shame; they love their sibs, describe matter-of-factly how they communicate together, explain what their sib’s stimming manifests, and emphasize how they love and enjoy time as a family. Several of the videos include a muppet who asks questions about how to engage the child with autism. The advice, from “It’s just hard for her to talk when she’s swinging,” to “Sometimes he needs to take a break from other people,” to “Everybody likes to play chase” is great. I watch the series and agree that it could be a game-changer for the way the generation now in preschool perceives developmental differences.

One of the aspects of the series I most appreciate is that it does not sugarcoat the experience of parenting a child with special needs. The parents talk about exhaustion, stress, and the pain of realizing experiences shared with the child will not include expected activities such as learning to play baseball. They talk about the need to learn patience, and the times when “I totally lost my cool.” These videos resonate most deeply for me.

The consistent division of labor within the families struck me. Every one of the videos follows a two-parent, heterosexual, nuclear family. Two of the segments interview fathers, while one interviews a mother. Both fathers are deeply involved with their children, but both acknowledge that their wives are responsible for the bulk of the child-rearing, particularly for the child with special needs. The mother, the subject of the third interview, expresses the same perception of her and her husband’s roles. In my experience and observation of two-parent households, this dynamic holds about ninety-five per cent of the time. When there is a child with special needs, mom usually handles the phone calls from school, schedules the doctor appointments, and soothes the meltdowns. Dad (in the best situations) provides support and respite for mom.

It is easy, even reflexive, for me to resent this unequal division, but in my calmer moments I understand that it can serve a beneficial purpose. The mother in Sesame Street’s interview acknowledges it too, and I’d like to call attention to it: “I’m the one who typically does everything special-needs related. While I’m in it and I’m kinda seeing all of these different things, my husband sees the big picture and he’s able to say, ‘Hey, I think you’re doing too much. Like I think you need to let [our son] do this by himself.’ And when I do listen to him, he’s usually right.”

Many mothers, and some fathers, do not have the benefit of a spouse who is equally invested although invested differently in the child, but every caregiver can find sources of support who do not need to act and respond at every moment; sources of support who watch our dynamic with our children as closely as we watch our children. We need these people and we need to allow ourselves to hear what they say. Ultimately we may disagree with their suggestions, but allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to admit that another perspective about our child and our child-rearing exists only benefits our kids. It also relieves us of the burden of having to be right all the time. Nobody is right all the time. We know it, but we don’t want it to be true. Parenting a child with special needs is so intense that it’s easy to create a bubble of oneself and one’s child. I’ve been there, and I still go there at times. But I do not believe any of us have to be as alone with this challenge/adventure as we sometimes feel. The benefits of allowing support seem obvious; the biggest downside, I think, is that we have to expose our own imperfections. It can be terrifying for sure, but it can also be so liberating.

Next week: Sesame Street helps preschoolers make friends, but what about teenagers who no longer play chase