We gathered round the TV yesterday at 10:30 to watch the highly anticipated and publicized debut of Sesame Street's first Muppet with autism. Her name is Julia, and she is an accurate but not stereotypical portrayal of people with ASD. The episode had a few other notable features, and I felt it necessary to go over them all.
THE STREET SCENE:
Julia was in the very first shot of the episode, showing that the show wanted to display the new character prominently throughout. Though Julia spoke mostly through repeating one word over and over, similar to E.T., she was a figure that all of us could relate to, autistic or not. Julia is puppeteered by Stacey Gordon and voiced by Diane Deland, and I thought both the puppeteer and the voice did a wonderful job with Julia. It was poetic to illustrate that Julia could not properly express herself, unless she was a) singing or b) in her element, alone on the rooftops.
The show did not seem afraid to use the word "autism" and it was very brave of the show to dare use that word in front of 1-year-olds. Autism Speaks tweeted about the episode. However, Autism Speaks is well known to be an anti-autism hate group that treats autism as a disease that needs to be cured, so I thought about calling them up on it. Perhaps via a Simpsons-style prank call:
ME: Hello, Autism Speaks? I'm looking for a Vera, last name Hategroup.
THEM: OK, I'll ask. Vera Hategroup? Does anyone here know Vera Hategroup? Hey, everybody! Vera Hategroup!
If you could still pull off a safe prank call, this would be the first one I'd do.
THE LETTER OF THE DAY:
I didn't expect anything in the episode to top Julia's debut, but sure enough, the Letter of the Day short film, about the letter F (4 points in Scrabble) DID. In it, a little girl flips through her friendship scrapbook, as she recites:
"Nothing is better than having a friend
Because nothing beats friendship and playing pretend
Friends can be furry, friends can love food
Friends can be funny and brighten your mood
Friends make things better, they know just how you feel
And the best kind of friend knows all feelings are real.
And even though friends may sometimes get in a fight,
A hug or "I'm sorry" can make things all right.
So go make a friend, and have lots of fun,
And another great thing... is that you can have more than one."
We see footage of the girl and her best friend - one black, one white - as they "illustrate" the words recited. The last line is accompanied by the two girls seeing a lonely girl on a swing in the woods and inviting her to be their friend too. My mother was in tears after that short played. I was as well. However, no production site has claimed the short yet, so I have yet to identify the actors in the short. In just a minute and 30 seconds, a filmmaker has told as moving a story of friendship as E.T.
Elmo has a smartphone. No really. And this smartphone is his best friend. What kind of message is this show sending our kids? He played Tic Tac Toe with the smartphone. Mr. Noodle, too, has been replaced by an Afro-topped scam artist posing as Mr. Noodle. Elmo's World is officially wrecked, by a smartphone and an identity thief.
Julia is a fantastic new character and will inspire every autistic child and those who know children who have been diagnosed. Julia will turn a generation of formerly fearful and prejudicial children into friendly people that accept and include individuals with autism. The friendship scrapbook video, too, will also inspire a generation of children to trust in their friends, grow stronger and kinder, and learn what a true friend is. The particularly moving final shot of the two girls - one black, one white - running off with their new friend they met in the woods, left me with nothing that could express the miracle of that short. The only words I could let slip were "That log had a child!" Let these messages grow in the minds of our younger friends. Who knows? Maybe war will be abolished because of those two girls and their friendship scrapbook.