Julia and Elmos sitting down, Julia is patting Elmo's head

Why I Will Be Watching 'Sesame Street' as an Adult

“Sesame Street” has a new character, a 4-year-old named Julia. Not only does this adorable new personality have bright orange hair and enthusiasm for life, she also has Autism. This is something many of us having been waiting for.

When I heard about this, I immediately searched for every video and article I could find to learn more about this new character and the show’s push for inclusion and acceptance. This show has been a wonderful platform to teach life lessons to children and “Sesame Street” has done it again.

Julia is Elmo’s friend, a bright character who is immediately accepted into the “Sesame Street” family. While Julia gets along well with the other characters, she does things a little differently at times. She covers her ears when loud noises overwhelm her, flaps her arms when she is excited, and sometimes avoids eye contact with others. I especially love how real the show is making this character. They are not trying to cover anything or pretend she doesn’t have a disability — instead they embrace everything that makes Julia unique. There have been times when I’ve watched people in the community seem uncomfortable, unaware of how to interact with someone with a disability. This is when we often see people with disabilities treated like tragic heroes or victims. In “Sesame Street” everyone simply embraces Julia. They acknowledge and accept her differences, and are quick to explain that while Julia does have autism, it simply makes her “just Julia.”

I am 20 years old and you can bet I will be watching “Sesame Street.” I am eager to see what situations and experiences Julia will have on the show, and how other autistic traits might be portrayed. This is a huge step for the already inclusive cast of “Sesame Street” and I can’t thank them enough. I am eager to see upcoming episode and watch this new story-line unfold. To those inside the disability community, I know some of us are doing our own little happy dance right now.

For those who do not have a child with a disability, please use this as a tool to teach your children about autism and other disabilities. Teach them these individuals do have differences, just like everyone else has something that makes them unique. Teach them not to be afraid of the child with autism in their classroom, but instead be a friend and peer advocate. Children are curious, let them be curious. Show them it is not only okay to reach out to a child with disabilities, but encouraged. And adults — nobody is too old to watch “Sesame Street.”

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Photo by: “Sesame Street” Facebook page


Illustration of man and woman sitting together on bench in park with autumn trees in the background

To the Man Who Brought Me Stim Tools on Our Second Date

On our first date, I awkwardly tossed my stim tool in the air and told you what it was. I’d just bought it from Stimatstic and was very excited. During all of the excitement of a first date and having a new stim tool, I somehow lost the tool. Perhaps by the waterfall under the moonlight, or maybe it slipped out of my pocked in the restaurant; I’m not sure.

I sent you a text the next day, telling you I lost the squishy little beanbag. You expressed that you were sorry it happened and tried to help me figure out where I may have lost it. A few days passed and I didn’t see you because you were away for work. I was excited for our second date, though.

Little did I know what you were preparing for me before our second date — a little pouch filled with items of which I could stim. Some cat hair from your beautiful long-haired cat, oddly bunched up and ready for feeling; some string; a necklace with tiny jingle balls on it; and three gorgeous stones. I was blown away by your thoughtfulness!

What made this even more special was that the outstanding gesture came from a neurotypical man. Let’s get this straight, though — in no other way are you typical. If more of society knew what you seemed to know (or perhaps you did some research after you met me) about stimming, we’d be a lot closer to a more aware and caring society. Stimming is important for many people on the autism spectrum. Thank you so much for showing me that you were accepting a big part of who I am. You are indeed very special.

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Thinkstock image by ElenaMichaylova

Profile of man wearing glasses, looking toward clouds in sky

How Autism Helps Me Be Mindful

Mindfulness is an essential skill for self-development, as it allows for the silent observation of thoughts, and the filtering of the negative from the positive. The starting point of any thought is an observation, either immediately or sometimes long before it.

So it follows that the more potent the observations, and the more aware of them we are, the easier it can be to track our thoughts, from their source as a quiet observation all the way to their emotional context when we interpret them.

At all these stages of thought, autism can lend a great gift in many ways. The senses of an autistic person can be very refined in at least some channels — sight, hearing, touch, etc. This means we can have a very different experience observing the world than neurotypical people. Observations to a heightened mind are bright and loud, and so are difficult to ignore.

Each and every person, texture and object in a place is noticed and registered at once as I enter it, and none of it escapes me. This is the first stage of mindfulness. Seeing so much, only a small portion of the information is interpreted. There is then a relatively quiet time when my mind decides how to interpret the information and apply emotion.

When it does so, my body reacts in subtle ways to the chemicals, that we associate with emotions, released. Things like the sensation in our fingertips when we feel excitement. To me, as an autistic person, even these changes are felt as potently as a bright light. If I know which emotions have stimulated which response, the second stage of mindfulness is also achieved with help from autism.

It isn’t difficult for me to trace feelings back to their source; most usually have a logical cause to them. Because both the initial observation and its associated sensation are so loud and clear, if anything is seen multiple times, then both the characteristics of what I’m looking at, and the exact emotion I first experienced, are replicated immediately as though its the first time.

As a result, any activities that lead to the same scenario (or just something in it) appearing before me many times are predictable. I know what I see each time, and how that makes me feel. It also works for the complex emotions that can be made up of many simple ones. So autism also helps me to pinpoint, in most cases, what caused me to feel a certain way, and therefore whether it is an emotion worth dwelling on, or whether it should be let go. My autism gives me awareness of my emotions, so that they do not always control me. I’m glad of this, as they are temporary, and I can always choose to let them pass.

Autism also helps me to isolate thoughts from observations. This increases awareness of them as they’re not drowned out by new information. The observations are external, whilst the interpretations are processed internally, in an inner world that much of the time remains isolated from the one we all share.

It may not always look like it, but autistic people can have just as much capacity for, and as much understanding of, emotions as anyone else. Even if it doesn’t happen in the same way as for neurotypical people.

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Thinkstock image by Design Pics

vector illustration of comb silhouette

Wendy Williams and Identity Salon to Offer Sensory-Friendly Haircuts

Over the past year, multiple retailers – from Toys ‘R’ Us to Costco – have announced one-off sensory-friendly quiet shopping hours. While these events are certainly a step in the right direction, people on the autism spectrum and sensory sensitivities need to go shopping and get the same services everyone else does, and they need to go more than once a year. To help make personal care services more accessible to kids on the spectrum, stylist Wendy Williams will be offering sensory-sensitive haircuts every Sunday to those on the autism spectrum.

“My husband is a school social worker and we have had many conversations about the gap in services and overwhelming need to provide sensory-sensitive social experiences for kids,” Williams told The Mighty. “I just think it is important that we all do our best to be open-minded and recognize the unique talents and needs of others. I’m hopeful my little part in doing so makes life easier for a few.”

All appointments, which must be made in advance, will take place at Identity Salon in Grand Blanc, Michigan, where Williams works. Salons are not typically a sensory-friendly place; most are loud, bright and overwhelmingly fragrant. To reduce the sensory-overload of a fully operating salon, Williams will be offering services on Sundays, when the salon is typically closed, ensuring the space can be adapted to fit her clients’ needs. Williams will also provide sensory tools and social stories to help make each haircut as enjoyable as possible.

Of course, Williams is just one stylist and can’t cut everyone’s hair. Her advice to other stylists with clients on the spectrum: Prepare ahead of time. “Get to know the child and their specific needs before they arrive,” she advised. “Have the parents or child complete a sensory response inventory, create a social story specific for the child and be willing to take as much time as needed on the day of the hair service to be sure the first experience with you is a positive as possible.”

For those on the spectrum looking to get a haircut, Williams suggests letting the stylist know your needs before the appointment and visiting the salon ahead of time, so you know what to expect.

The sensory-friendly appointments will begin March 26.

Thinkstock image via -Elika-

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.”

Bizarro Cartoon About Autism and Vaccines Sparks Outrage Among Anti-Vax Community

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.”

Picture of Elmo and Julia on a dark night

Why Sesame Street's Julia Is a Step In the Right Direction

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

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