I’m writing this post because April is Autism Awareness Month
Up until now I hadn’t given the condition a lot of thought, so I didn’t realize just how prevalent it is. Frankly, I thought it was relatively rare. Common enough to be acknowledged by the public, but not, you know, common.
In fact, it’s estimated that one in 68 children is on the spectrum.
Of course, that spectrum covers a wide range of characteristics and severity. But if you’re anything like me, you don’t immediately think of the various ways autism can present itself. No, you — or I, anyway — tend to think of the most extreme version of the condition.
I blame Law & Order.
There’s an old episode of the show that involved a home for autistic children. The center had a patient die, so obviously an investigation ensued. Detectives found out that the head doctor had been authorizing cruel, sometimes life-threatening penalties for bad behavior.
The police tried to interview some of the patients, but they didn’t get very far. The children were mainly non-functional. The ones that did speak answered in fragments or made very little sense.
The detectives also interviewed the patients’ parents. We heard all about episodes of violence (mainly self-harm), as well as other, overwhelming difficulties that led the parents to institutionalize their children. The central conceit was that these kids simply needed too much help.
What I remember most vividly was a scene at the end, after the doctor was convicted. A mother dragged her teen son over to the lawyer and asked, angrily, what she was supposed to do now. Was he going to take her son?
Obviously, these were supposed to be the most extreme cases. Intellectually, I understood that. Just like I knew that the show couldn’t go off on a tangent showing all the autistic children who were still happily living with their parents.
But what I saw resonated with me far more than abstract logic. Those portrayals were what my brain conjured up when the word “autistic” came up.
And that’s the problem with the entertainment industry’s portrayal of medical conditions: Manageable versions don’t make for great drama. So we see disorders like schizophrenia and autism played up to the nth degree.
While it’s great for TV and movies, it leaves the general public with overly negative, usually scary and rarely accurate mental images of a disorder.
At least, that’s how it used to be — for autism, anyway.
Fast forward two decades — ack, so old! — and Sesame Street has introduced its first autistic muppet, Julia.
Julia is part of the gang, and the others accept some of her traits as “just being Julia.”
Yes, she echoes what some other characters say. Yes, she doesn’t always interact with new people. But her friends work around it, just as they would any “normal” person’s idiosyncrasies.
And when Julia shuts down after a loud noise, someone is there to tell her friends to give her space. Without the excess stimuli, she’s able to recover, and the scene moves on.
This is great stuff. But what I loved most of all is the show highlights that Julia’s condition gives her unique strengths. She’s really good at spotting shapes, making her a valuable team member in a game. She comes up with a new form of tag.
In short, the show isn’t just teaching kids how to interact with an autistic peer. It’s also showing them that autism has positive aspects. That a condition isn’t the same as an affliction.
A long time coming
Julia isn’t a whim.
Sesame Street has been working with the autism community for years to make the subject matter and character realistic and approachable. To properly demystify the condition and help educate kids. To show that an autistic brain may work differently, but it does work.
And the effort is yielding results.
A Georgetown study found that it’s helping the families of neurotypical children be more accepting of autistic kids.
That alone is wonderful, of course, but what I find fascinating is that it’s also helping families with autistic kids. Parents report feeling better about the idea of integrating their children into neurotypical play groups.
Plus, there are heart-melting stories like the woman who explained her five-year-old daughter’s autism to her with a Julia book. The girl apparently replied, “So I’m amazing too, right?”
I’m not crying. There was something in my eye.
Shop for a cause
Of course, the fight for awareness and understanding is far from over. The good news is that you can help for free. Technically, it’ll even make you money.
Each year the cash back site Dollar Dig donates 100% of its April profits to the autism awareness group POAC. The organization provides events for autistic kids and their families, but also education and training for parents, teachers, law enforcement and first responders.
So if you’re going to shop online in April, go through Dollar Dig. You get your cash back and POAC gets a donation. Win-win.
Have you seen any of the Julia episodes of Sesame Street? Have you had any autism stereotypes dispelled over the years?