A cartoon showing a meeting of mythical creatures, shows a mermaid gesturing to a vial, stating, “I’d like to welcome our newest member to the group, the vaccine that causes autism.”

For 32 years, Dan Piraro has been illustrating cartoons for Bizarro, a nationally syndicated cartoon panel appearing in over 350 daily and Sunday newspapers. On March 8, Piraro published a cartoon about autism and vaccines. The result, he said, caused more controversy than any other cartoon in his 32-year career.

The cartoon, which illustrates a meeting of mythical creatures, shows a mermaid gesturing to a vial, stating, “I’d like to welcome our newest member to the group, the vaccine that causes autism.”

“I’ve been responsible for creating a new joke and drawing to go with it 365 days a year for over 32 years, so I’m always looking for something new to write about,” Piraro told The Mighty. “Lately I’ve been disheartened by the massive move in the U.S. away from science and facts and towards myths and ‘alternative facts.’”

After searching the web, Piraro decided to illustrate the myth that vaccines cause autism. “[I] happened to come across something about the autism/vaccine myth, which I was familiar with already, of course, but the combination of that kind of myth with other known myths – mermaids, unicorns, etc. – suddenly struck me as a good way to illustrate the folly of this kind of thinking in a simple, graphic way.”

The idea that vaccines cause autism has been widely debunked a number of times over the past decade. In 1998, the Lancet published a study which claimed autism was linked to the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. The Lancet then retracted the study in 2010 after scientists were unable to replicate its findings, and the study’s author, Andrew Wakefield, had his medical license rescinded.

Since publishing, Piraro’s cartoon has sparked widespread criticism from anti-vaxxers as well as parents who felt he was making a joke out of autism, rather than vaccines. “ I knew it would kick up some dust, but I had no idea the backlash would be so widespread and vitriolic,” Piraro said. “I’ve done many cartoons about controversial topics in the past – legalization of marijuana, marriage equality, terrorism, Trump – and am used to getting hate mail, but this one broke all previous records.”

“As a parent of two adult daughters, it is easy for me to understand why there is so much emotion around this subject and also why this myth has been so pervasive for so many years. People worry about few things more than the health of their own children,” Piraro added.

From letters to the editor at daily newspapers to comments on Piraro’s Facebook page, people fought to have their voices heard. In having this debate, we often leave out autistic individuals who are left to feel like their existence is a disease that needs a named cause. While we understand the challenges with autism can be more significant for some individuals and their loved ones, we must be careful in the messages we send people on the spectrum when we discuss the vaccination controversy.

In a blog post addressing the controversy, Piraro wrote:

I’ve read a lot about this issue over the years and especially in the past week and one thing I’m certain of is that unless you are a trained scientist in areas that relate to this, it is very easy to be confused by what is true and what is myth. That’s why in these cases, there is no logical position to take other than to side with the majority of experts. I’m not a doctor or a scientist, but it is clear that the vast majority of doctors, scientists, and medical organizations whose job it is to study, research, and know this stuff still adamantly say there is no causal relationship between vaccines and autism.

Not all of the feedback has been negative, Piraro said. “Many doctors and other people in and around the healthcare world responded very positively and asked if they could use the cartoon in their efforts to inform the public,” he added. “I always love it when my cartoons get used as teaching tools.”


Yesterday morning I woke up to news about Julia — the new autistic character on “Sesame Street” — and I lapped up all the news about it, excited like a child in a candy store.

My son has no interest in the show. I’ve tried, but he walks away. Still, this news makes me happy and hopeful.

The show is an American icon. Even after half a century, it continues to be relevant. Many children grow up watching “Sesame Street,” and its characters might feel like friends. So, when a show like this decides to feature a new character who happens to be autistic, I believe it gives the cause of autism awareness a much-needed boost.

The autism community has insisted acceptance and inclusion are important. I believe this is a step in that direction. It starts during the formative years, when kids are young. Hopefully, as young kids watch the inclusion of diverse characters, they can grow up to become more compassionate and understanding adults. We could finally have a generation that celebrates uniqueness rather than ridicules it. Julia might help kids appreciate the fact that it’s OK to be different, and people with different abilities can be as much fun as anyone else if we understand them. For someone on the autism spectrum, hopefully this new character will make their interactions with peers a positive one. In my opinion this initiative from “Sesame Street” really matters.

The introductory episode will have Julia hesitating to shake hands with the crew. They will explain why she’s not being impolite and how there are other effective ways to communicate with her. Another episode shows the Muppet Abby and Julia having fun together.

I believe these are small but effective ways to teach young kids about autism.

Although autism diagnoses are almost five times more common in boys than girls, interestingly, “Sesame Street” decided to bring in Julia — a girl on the autism spectrum. This is commendable because it sheds much-wanted light on autism in girls.

Critics are already complaining about typecasting autism through Julia. However, as we all know, they could have introduced any other Muppet and chosen not to represent autism or any other disability. For now, I welcome Julia with open arms, and I hope this brings a new understanding of autism as parents sit next to their little ones and enjoy the show.

Follow this journey on Tulika’s blog.

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Photo image via Sesame Street

For the first time in a decade, Sesame Street is adding a new muppet to the block: Julia, a young muppet on the autism spectrum.

“For years, families of children with autism have asked us to address the issue. We heard a call to use our expertise and characters to build a bridge between the autism and neurotypical communities,” Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, SVP of U.S. Social Impact, Sesame Workshop said in a press release. “So many partners, advisors, and organizations have contributed to the success of this initiative, and we are thrilled to have the benefit of this collaboration as we launch this latest chapter.”

In 2015, Sesame Workshop launched Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children, an online initiative which introduced Julia as a digital character in a storybook called “We’re Amazing, 1,2,3.” Sesame Workshop has spent five years consulting with 250 organizations and experts within the autism community – including Autism Speaks and the Autism Society of America.

Julia will be played by Stacey Gordon, a puppeteer whose son is on the autism spectrum. “I really wish that kids in my son’s class had grown up with a ‘Sesame Street’ that had modeling [of] the behavior of inclusion of characters with autism,” Gordon told NPR.

Julia will make her debut April 10 on PBS Kids and HBO.

I am really, really afraid of going to the dentist. I’ll be in a heightened state of panic weeks before, which is really bad for my body and mind and devastating for me. I’ll have panic attacks and gag reflexes, and I’ll be so tense I might harm myself accidentally (or deliberately at times) by clenching my fist so I dig my nails in, and I’ll be sore in my arms and legs the next day. And all this even if I have never had to do any real scary dentist work or had a really bad experience. I think it might have something to do with lying down in that chair and feeling like I’m losing all control. Just writing this is making me uncomfortable, and slightly nauseous.

I am thinking about this because it was a while… well, actually, way too long since I have been for a checkup. I don’t feel anything weird or wrong, but there still might be. I have horribly crooked wisdom teeth; they grow outwards, towards my cheeks, but they don’t bother me.

The last time I had to book an appointment, I could literally feel/see my eyesight get sharper and sharper as my adrenaline levels rose. But it all went well and we fixed one cavity with anesthetic, and I let the dentist remove an old amalgam filling and put in a new white one without anesthetic, which is unheard of for me.

I have found something that has been helpful for me, though, apart from the sedative I can take if I need it: educational YouTube videos for dentists! I have found a channel where a calm dentist explains what he is doing, and there are no horrible headlines, just ordinary dental problems on a varying scale. I won’t show any pictures, since I know some of you probably don’t want to see that, but here is a link to the channel. It might be surprising that someone who is scared of going to the dentist sits and willingly watches movies about dentist work. But the thing is, I like to know what they are doing and why, and this way I learn.

Follow this journey on Friday Frida.

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Thinkstock photo by Davizro

Last week my state had the “Woman of the Year” awards. It was a great honor to be at the awards ceremony as a finalist. I was nominated due to the work I do around autism advocacy in the local and wider community. There were politicians and notable people in attendance. I was accompanied by two friends and the most important person in my life, my mum.

My mum was delighted to share the awards night with me, but her parental pride might have a darker origin than that of many parents. My teen years and 20s were hell for my family. I made poor choices over and over again and was incredibly self-destructive. At times, I lost contact with my parents and they assumed I had died.

My mum gained her own autism diagnosis just a few years ago as an older adult. My mum’s diagnosis helped both of us understand our own lives and our relationship as mother and daughter.

When I was about 5, I went to a therapist because I was aggressive at school. I struggled with change and the unpredictability of other kids, so I responded by hitting as I didn’t know what else to do. My understanding (which may be wrong — I was 5 after all), was that the therapist suggested to my mum that maybe I was an atypical autistic person. I don’t believe this was investigated any further. I don’t quite know the reasoning but in the 1970s the prevailing view from clinicians was that autism was caused by cold-hearted “refrigerator mothers.” I can imagine how my mum wanted to steer clear of that accusation. I feel we were a quirky family but largely happy when I was little, but my parents’ unconventional parenting style was viewed dimly by those judgmental types who think it’s OK to give unhelpful and unsolicited advice to people.

In fact, I don’t believe there was much reason to judge my parents. They did some things well, others not so well and they did the best they could — like many other parents do. When I was a troubled teenager, I remember talking to my mum almost every day while she was ironing. No topic was barred. I could say or ask anything of my mum and she would respond with a loving, respectful answer. She was there for me even in the darkest places, when I was a prisoner both in the physical and emotional sense. She never let go of me and she never stopped loving me, even when it must have been difficult. Her love has always been this tangible thing, like another character in our shared story.

As I have changed my life over the past 17 years and gone from desperate to respected, my mum and her love have been there at every step.

In conventional terms, my mum is probably an atypical parent. She did a lot of things some people might think were a little odd — we used the same piece of plastic wrap on our sandwiches at school all week because of my mum’s respect for the environment, and if I was sad she would read to me from the Book of Revelation in the Bible. But she was the best mum and we were quirky and different together — as we still are.

Having my mum in the audience at the awards night last week was pretty special for us both. I kept wishing people from the past who criticized her would come up and say she must in fact be a great mum to raise a finalist for “Woman of the Year.” I didn’t win the award, but I got a bigger prize through my mum being there, and both of us getting to enjoy our respective successes.

Jeanette Purkis and her mum at the Woman of the Year awards

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Like some autistic kids, my son has poor fine motor skills which affect his everyday life. Getting into occupational therapy (OT) has been nothing short of a feat. It is not unusual to be placed in a three-to six-month waiting list. In my experience once you get in, you often get an hour a week and if your stars are aligned right, maybe twice a week. Then comes insurance which, in our case, believes my child does not really need this therapy. If I convince them he does, I get covered for maybe 12 to 15 sessions a year. So, in between the waiting, the long gaps between sessions, the power play with insurance and the rest, I was left with a lot of time in my hands. I decided to use this time for therapies we could do at home.

This is a list of activities that have worked for my son. I’ve seen real success and these are easy to set up — and fun, too.

Lacing beads :

Beads made out red and blue play-doh stringed with a yellow shoe lace

What you need — (option 1) pipe cleaner, Cheerios  (option 2) Play-Doh, shoe lace

The activity — This helps with the pincer grasp and with hand-eye coordination. All you need to do is help your child push Cheerios onto a pipe cleaner. Several websites, instead of using a pipe cleaner, suggest using raw spaghetti propped on a ball of Play-Doh, but my son likes to fiddle and the pasta breaks. Pipe cleaners work better for us. Once my son mastered this, we moved on to a more challenging lacing exercise. I made beads out of Play-Doh (grape size balls and I poked holes with a skewer). I let them dry overnight. I use a shoe lace with a knot tied at one end to stop the beads from falling out and then I help my son lace the beads through. It took some sessions of frustration but he eventually got it. Now he’s a pro.

Make it fun — To make this task more interesting, you can use multicolored Fruit Loops and make bracelets out of it. The shoe lace with chunky Play-Doh beads looks like a tribal neck-piece, which is a great incentive for my son to work for.

Using tweezers:

A small green bowl and a large tan bowl, both with popcorn. A pair of orange tongs sits in the tan bowl.

What you need — tweezers/tongs/straws, popcorn

The activity — Chances are you have a pair of tweezers at home. Put some popcorn in a bowl and help your child serve each of you a small portion using the tweezers. For those who don’t have tweezers, a straw bent at the middle works just fine. However, when you switch to picking heavier stuff than popcorn, you might consider getting one of those kids tongs for this exercise.

Make it fun — Set a timer and race against each other for who gets the most popcorn.

Paper crumple:

A clear trash can with crumpled paper inside and outside

What you need — Old magazines, trash can

The activity — This is another fun activity. Grab a few old magazines. Sit next to your child and place a trash can in front of you, not too far. Take turns ripping off paper from the magazine, crumpling it into a ball, and throwing it into the can. This activity has three components: tearing, which requires finger manipulation; crumpling paper into a tight ball, which increases hand strength; aiming at the basket, which is a good hand-eye coordination exercise. Also, tearing paper is a precursor to acquiring skills for many daily activities like writing, opening sealed bags, or shredding pieces of food.

Make it fun — Start a two-person match and keep score of who makes more baskets.

Sponge squeeze:

a clear bowl with water and a blue sponge inside, next to it is a clear cup with a small amount of water

What you need — clean sponge, water, cup

The activity — This is another hand strengthening exercise that my son loves, especially because it involves water. Soak a sponge in water and let your child squeeze the water out into a cup or bowl.

Make it fun — Bring out a few bowls of water and add food coloring. Set up a fake slush or juice bar by squeezing the colored water in different glasses.

Coin bank:

Quaker oatmeal box laying on its side with slits and coins on the top

What you need — cereal/shoe box, coins

The activity — My son loved going to Chuck E. Cheese’s and needed our help every time he had to insert tokens. That’s when we realized how important it was to work on this skill. Take a cereal box, (I used a Quaker’s oatmeal box) and make a small vertical slit on one side, and a horizontal one on the other side (big enough for a coin to go through). I began this activity by placing the box so the slit was on top, switching between dropping the coin through the vertical and a horizontal slits. Since it’s easier to push through a slit that’s on top rather than on the side, I waited until he mastered the top slits before moving on. I then flipped the box so that the slit faced the side. This one took some time to master but my son is now an expert — if he is paying attention.

To make things more challenging, you can let your child pick up the coins on his own. Once they’ve mastered this skill, add another level of challenge by giving them a couple of coins in their hands and letting them use the same hand to push the coins into the slit. Both of these options will encourage in-hand manipulation skills.

Make it fun — Create a play zone for your kid with his favorite toys lined up. Allocate different coin counts for each toy. Let your child “deposit” coins in the box for any toy he wants to play with.

Pipe cleaner & colander:

red colander with wooden skewers

What you need — colander, pipe cleaners, bamboo skewers

The activity — This one is similar to lacing beads. Turn a colander upside down and help your child insert pipe cleaners through its holes. You could then move on to bamboo skewers. Try selecting skewers that fit snugly through the colander holes. I find these more challenging because they require a little more strength to push through the holes and it helps with hand strength. Pulling these skewers out is just as challenging because my son needs to hold down the colander and then pull out the skewers. It really helps with his motor strengthening skills.

Make it fun — Once you have all the pipe cleaners in the colander, loop those back into another hole or twist those around in different shapes and make funny hats out of the colander. You could make porcupines out of the bamboo skewers too but be careful, they are prickly.

There are several other games that have helped my son acquire the fine motor skills he struggles with. Everyday activities present us with several opportunities to do so. Besides, they provide a meaningful goal for an activity rather than just sitting at a table and doing a list of tasks.

Some other activities we do:

Peeling fruit (like oranges and bananas) for finger manipulation.

Pouring water or juice in glasses for hand-eye coordination.

Help carry groceries for motor exercise (and some kids feel proud helping mom or dad).

Whisking an egg or a batch of cookies, for hand exercise.

You could store a favorite treat in a container with a screw-on lid and when your child asks for one, have them open the container on their own.

If they ask for a candy, ask them to unwrap it or open that M&M bag themselves. I’ve found that motivation is a big driving force for learning.

Get a wind up toy your child likes and watch them build their hand manipulation skills as they crank it up.

When a package arrives, don’t throw the bubble wrap away. Have fun popping them with your child.

Last week I needed a lot of butter for something I was cooking and I asked my son to unwrap all the butter sticks for me. He struggled initially and got a little frustrated but we finally worked our way through all 16 sticks. By the time we finished, he was already unwrapping on his own.

In my personal experience, making an activity fun and purposeful is an important factor in learning. Our homes are filled with opportunities to teach and to learn. Sometimes it requires thinking outside the box a little. Also, I’ve experienced the more chances I give my son to do chores around the house, the more skills he acquires. In spite of his challenges, I try to give him as much independence as I can for him to learn and grow.

Have fun being a “mommy therapist.”

Editor’s note: This story is based on an individual’s experience and should not be considered medical advice. Please consult a doctor or medical professional for any questions.

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