Sesame Street and Autism

  Or: Am I the Only Autistic Who Hates the Muppets?

Originally, I had planned this piece to be about how much I do NOT like the Muppets and Sesame Street. It’s the voices – so over modulated , excessive somehow, and irritating – and the frenetic movements, as well as the gape-mouthed or expressionless visages –  precisely the qualities Sara, my support person, has told me appeal to many autistics because they are easier to “read”. I do not like the bouncing around they do, either. Yes, I did watch Sesame Street as a child and enjoyed it then, especially Grover, the crabby one; crabby I can relate to! I even had a cup with, not a smiley face, but a frowny one; I felt it reflected how I usually felt – unhappy. I Forget what the writing on it was, but it wasn’t “Have a nice day”. My parents always got my sister the smiley items, but I actually wanted the not-so-smiley ones.

My mother was constantly reminding me, “pretty is as pretty does”, which I translated as I was only a beautiful face – and even that I didn’t see as attractive at all – , “What are they talking about, “pretty”? I was the “pretty one” and my sister was the “good girl”. I saw my self as evil and ugly. Flawed. Inadequate. It took a long time to conquer feelings like that, but that is another essay.

So, back to “Sesame Street”. It turns out, it’s not just the expressions )or lack, thereof – which appeal to autistics; there is actually an autistic character!

Her name is Julia, and she has been in the works since 2015 at least; I believe she was rolled out this year.

Image result for Julia character Sesame Street

In this Salon article, it mentions how, 46 years ago, there was a Marcus Welby, MD episode(one of my favorite shows, which also fueled my pre-med student’s hypochondriasis), which featured a boy with autism. I actually remember this episode; it was one of my favorites. As “Salon” points out, this episode was not a feel – good type portrayal; the kid was violent and out of control; his parents were facing institutionalization.

I saw the episode years after it aired; I imagine I was between eight and ten years old, but I identified with the little guy – I was pretty out of control myself at that age, and would get much worse after puberty struck at age 12.

Could not find that episode online – sure it’s somewhere, but I lack the patience.

As I sit here, at Autistry, in the computer room, at least one other person is watching “Sesame Street” – sometimes I wonder if I am the only autistic person who does NOT like the Muppets!

According to Sara, “Sesame Street Classic” is the preferred format for the autistic folks she knows – and it is not only children and severe autistics; even verbal adults enjoy watching, too. Like my autistic online friend, Christy, who gives regular updates on her Muppet viewing.

When I asked why she thought the “classic” format was preferred over the newer episodes, she said she thinks the digital animation is a bit offputting; the autistic folks she knows prefer the puppets, and the digital stuff is a bit too busy. So I took an informal poll after lunch at Autistry: “Which “Sesame Street” version do you prefer and why”?

Both young women prefer the classic version, one, “I don’t know why – I think because I grew up with it”. The other girl likes the celebrity episodes, including Johnny Cash and Meryl “Sheep”. In fact, the “Meryl Sheep” ellicited laughter even today. I also like word play – currently am laughing over something my French autistic friend said a few days ago: When queried about the weather, she proclaimed it “frisky” out. Merely writing it causes me to laugh. “Frisky”, a combination of f”frigid” and “nippy”, perhaps? Who knows, but I have been inserting it into conversations where it doesn’t necessarily fit. Like, I’ll steer the conversation to the weather -“Oh, what’s it like out there? You’d better wear a jacket; it’s frisky out”, etc.

Typically autistic, grabbing onto a funny word and using every opportunity to say it, even prompting others to say it just to hear it again. And again. As I told my friend after I inserted “frisky” into the conversation, yet again,

“I’m never going to forget that one – “frisky”!”

This repetition is something Sara says may be appealing about Sesame Street, especially the classic version.

As far as the character, Julia, goes – she is controversial for several reasons, one being autism is not shown through her eyes, but through the people around her.

The fact she is a girl when most autistics are boys was actually premeditated – the creators wanted to show autism can occur in girls, too.

I think it is definitely a step in the right direction to introduce Julia, so I am not going to quibble about it. In fact, as I started this article, I was feeling quite antagonistic toward the whole Muppet craze, but not anymore. I think it is a great thing Sesame Street is doing, and on their site I found this  video, “A Sibling Story”, showing how 3 sisters, one with autism, get through a day together. The love and tenderness they all show is quite remarkable:

So there you have it, my newly revised opinion on “Sesame Street” and the Muppets. I don’t think I really “hate” them – just don’t make me watch them.






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