Special Mom and Son Time: Talking Heroes and Muppets
My son, Ryan, and I reside in a medium sized outdoors-driven town just a hop and a skip south of the Canadian border. Sandwiched between Vancouver, BC to the north and Seattle, Washington to the south, our community, trying to stave off too much growth, strives to be tight-knit, which has allowed Ry and I to develop, nurture and foster a very supportive village.
Our local ski hill, the Mt. Baker Ski Area, hosts an annual film festival at the Mt. Baker Theater every Fall, getting everyone filled with stoke for the upcoming season. It is an adrenalin-fueled spectacle of international, national and local skiers and snowboarders dropping into incredibly steep lines and displaying aerial acrobatics that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up straight and take notice.
In 2017, the film festival took an unexpected turn. The ski area directors added another dimension to the ticket, a video of the local Special Olympics team, 542 East. As Ryan and I watched this film short, I was hooting, hollering and pointing out each athlete that we had known over the years through our small autism community. Once the film was finished, Ry turned to me and said, “Mom, those were heroes that looked like me.” Those were heroes that looked like me! Can you imagine, for the first time in his 17 years, he was seeing other special needs children and young adults being celebrated, really celebrated, outside the confines of our special needs community.
Previous readers may remember that my son Ry is 19 years old. Cognitively, he is a voracious consumer of information with an eidetic memory and can decode languages like a boss. Emotionally, I have a little boy that has been stuck since the death of his father 15 years ago. Ryan is progressing, but in most cases, on good days, I am parenting a seven-year-old little boy.
This child watches Planeta de Niños and Sesame Street with gusto, rarely missing an episode when he isn’t attending school. As much as I would like for him to engage in age-appropriate activities, in his mind, this is his emotional age, and I have finally gotten out of his way. What I have discovered is that he is learning about friendship, social cues, and how to be brave and simultaneously vulnerable…all good tools for him to slowly master. In truth, why would interfere with that?
Fast forward one year and Ryan is asking what I know about Julia. Julia? My mind racing, I’m trying to scroll through the multitude of random information he attaches to, but I can’t find any significance to Julia. Defeated, I say, “I don’t know anything about Julia. What do you know about her?” Ry excitedly explains that she is the newest Sesame Street Muppet, that she has autism, and did I know she was debuting today? I respond, “No, I was unaware,” and within minutes we are sitting on the couch watching the newest episode of Sesame Street!
As the episode unfolds, Julia is explained with a loving kindness that speaks volumes of the mission of Sesame Street to help children grow smarter, stronger and kinder. Alan, the human on set, is peppered with questions from “neurotypical” Muppets like Elmo and Big Bird, and Alan’s answers set the tone for how Sesame Street is going to embrace, acknowledge and love our children of difference. I am heart full and verging tears when Ry turns to me and says, “Mom, Julia is me, and I am Julia. That was wonderful.”
That was wonderful…it was more than that…it was validation, acceptance, understanding, and a beautiful acknowledgment of our children on a worldwide stage. A simple hand puppet and my son’s perspective shifted in regards to how he fits in this world. Excited beyond measure, Ry writes Sesame Workshop to explain to them the meaningfulness of seeing Julia on the show and to my absolute joy, he received a response from them within weeks.
In the past, when I thought about inclusion and my son, I was focusing more on his education and the ability to participate in athletics and choir at his high school than I was about how individuals defined or attempted to explain his condition. It had been a long time since I thought about a broader audience other than those that looked to people like Temple Grandin to help them contextualize autism. In a single broad stroke, Sesame Street was able to level the playing field for our children with a new generation of viewers and their families. Inclusion isn’t always about participation, but more to the point, it is about understanding.
Since Julia’s debut, Sesame Street has incorporated her with more frequency. These episodes have fostered conversations about self-advocacy and self-esteem within our household.
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When I ask Ryan how Julia has impacted him, he wrote:
With its new Muppet Julia, Sesame Street has opened yet another door to happy people like me (Hart, Moss, Raposo & Stone, 1968). I’m Ryan Cunningham, a 19-year-old autistic individual who attends Community Transitions, Bellingham School District No. 501’s post-high-school life and work skills program for disabled people, and a big fan of Sesame Street.
I was amazed when Sesame Workshop finally introduced Julia, an autistic Muppet, to Sesame Street. That the other characters of Sesame Street are very accepting of her with her autism is great. For example, consider this situation:
Elmo likes blocks. He builds really tall block towers. He also likes to knock them down.
CRASH! Julia likes blocks, too. She lines them up in a row.
“Cool wall,” Elmo says. (Kimmelman, 2015)
Autistic children often like to “line objects up, play by themselves, and repeat the same actions over and over again” (Rudy, 2018). I even did this as a child!
That the back-office staff at Sesame Workshop have finally considered autistic children’s needs in a children’s television show now watched by almost every American child is astonishing—especially when they are doing so with a female Muppet (as autistic girls have often been left undiagnosed, or misdiagnosed with other disorders instead of autism).
I was wowed when, in Julia’s premiere on Sesame Street (episode No. 4715), Alan, the manager of Hooper’s Store, beautifully explained Julia’s traits to Big Bird, Elmo, and Abby Cadabby. For example, Big Bird is confused when Julia leaves the picnic table instead of giving him a high-five:
BIG BIRD: (To JULIA.) Huh? High five? (To ALAN.) Oh, Alan, I don’t think Julia likes me very much.
ALAN: Oh, no. You two are just meeting for the first time.
BIG BIRD: Oh. So she’s shy. Oh, I get that. I can feel shy sometimes, too.
ALAN: Well, with Julia, it’s not just that. You see, she has autism. She likes it when people know that.
BIG BIRD: Autism? What’s autism?
ALAN: Well, for Julia, it means that she might not answer you right away. (Boylan et al., 2017)
To have such a great deal of understanding, awareness, and acceptance not only of autistic people but of everyone is something we all need. Sesame Workshop has made great advancements in this topic with Gordon and Susan in Sesame Street‘s premiere, as well as Luis, Maria, Rosita, Osvaldo el Gruñón, Linda, and Tarah later on, and now Julia. Thank you, Sesame Street.
Boylan, M., Capra, J., Carleton, J., Cole, G., Fallon, J., Ferraro, C.,Ward, B. [authors]; Diego, K., Jameson, J., Lehmann, B., Preston, S.,Vinson, C., Vogel, M., & Zylstra, N. [directors] (2017). Meet Julia [Television series episode]. In Johnson, B. & Parente, C.-L., “Sesame Street.” New York, NY: Sesame Workshop. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKCdV20zLMs [Only partially available on the web.]
Kimmelman, L. (2015). We’re amazing 1, 2, 3! (2017 print ed.). New York, NY: Random House Children’s Books. Illus. M. Nelson; cover illus.T. Brannon.
Hart, B., Moss, J., Raposo, J., & Stone, J. (1968). Sesame Street Theme/Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street? New York, NY: Children’s Television Workshop.
Rudy, L. J. (2018, July 24). Why do autistic children play differently? [Weblog post]. Retrieved from http://www.verywellhealth.com/autistic-child-form-of-play-259884
Kimberly Reeves, MEd, is a professor of biology at Whatcom Community College in the Pacific Northwest US. A firm believer in the value and strength of community, Kimberly has served as a board member of Families for Autism Care, Education, and Support (FACES) Northwest, a local summer day camp for children with autism in Whatcom County, Washington; she has consulted with her local school district and assists with her son’s Special Olympics activities. She provides informational support to families processing autism diagnoses or struggling to understand and navigate their rights and responsibilities as parent advocates and guardians as outlined by the federal government. She and her son Ryan are currently co-authoring a book, Raising Ryan, and are enjoying this experience together. Kimberly welcomes questions or comments.
Ryan Cunningham, musician, computer tech, linguist extraordinaire, and Special Olympian, is participating in a post-secondary program to hone his independent living skills. In the past few years Ryan has developed a keen sense of social justice, believing all peoples deserve equality and respect and hopes to publish children’s book in the future.
This article was featured in Issue 84 – The Journey to Good Health and Well-Being