My daughter has light brown hair and brown eyes. She loves animals and art, and she calls herself a cat whisperer. She wears pajamas to school every day, and in many ways she's just like every other child in her third-grade class. But, unlike the rest of her class, my daughter is autistic.
It didn't take long for my daughter to realize that she was different. She's the only child who leaves school early every day for private therapies, and she's the only one who sometimes has meltdowns in the corner of the classroom. I bought her books about autism and tried to emphasize the positives, but all of the main characters in the books were boys. She didn't see herself reflected in them or in the other kids in her class -- she didn't see herself anywhere at all.
"Why am I the only one with autism?" she asked me.
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Sometimes, my daughter's sense of isolation turns negative. There have been times when she's hated being different, and even said she shouldn't be alive. No matter how many times I've told her she isn't the only autistic person, she still feels alone.
That's why I was so excited two years ago when Sesame Street announced the launch of Julia, the show's first autistic character, in an online series for autistic kids. But, as helpful as online or printed resources are, it still hasn't been the same as having an autistic character integrated into the TV show itself. Until now, that is. The creators of Sesame Street just announced that Julia will be the first new Muppet introduced on the show in more than a decade.
Like my daughter, Julia loves animals and art. She expresses herself through her pictures, and she can be hesitant to join in the group. Sometimes, she doesn't notice when her friends try to get her attention; sometimes, she sees things other people don't. But to the other Muppets like Abby, that's just Julia.
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I probably shouldn't cry over a new Muppet on Sesame Street, but reading about Julia's addition to the cast made me tear up. My daughter is lucky to be in a class full of kids who are more curious than judgmental, and who seem to understand that she is just Charlotte. But even that curiosity can be difficult for my daughter to handle sometimes. She doesn't want to be a one-girl autism awareness campaign; she just wants to be herself.
My daughter's classmates mean well when they ask why she leaves early or has meltdowns, and I'm thankful they are open-minded and always ready to include her, but most of them have only learned about autism because of my daughter. They had no frame of reference for autism until they met her.
Kids pick up a lot from the TV shows they watch. Sometimes, in the case of shows with whiny little protagonists like Caillou, that's not always a good thing. But learning more about autism can only be a good thing for every child. By watching Julia interact with her peers, neurotypical kids will begin to understand that not everyone thinks or responds like them. Maybe Julia will help them be more tolerant and less judgmental. At the very least, Julia's character will introduce them to autism so my daughter doesn't have to.
For autistic girls like my daughter, Julia is even more important. In a sea of educational materials and books targeted to autistic boys, Julia is a reminder to these little girls that they are just as important. On a fundamental level, she shows autistic girls that they exist, too. She shows my daughter, in a way I can't, that she isn't alone. Even more importantly, she teaches my daughter that it's okay to be different.
Girls are notoriously overlooked in the autism diagnostic process. Autism manifests differently in girls than in boys, and misconceptions about what autism looks like in girls can lead to later diagnoses and less access to critical early interventions. My daughter was one of those missed cases, and even though I began raising concerns to her pediatrician at 9 months old, she wasn't diagnosed until she was 5 -- and my daughter isn't a fringe case. She has moderate autism, with moderate to severe support needs. She spent two years on waiting lists for autism therapies, and as a result, she didn't begin critical interventions until she was 7 years old. If even one doctor watches Julia and rethinks how they screen for autism, the show will have been a success.
My daughter says she is too old for Sesame Street. When I mentioned that there's a new character with autism on the show, she perked up, but still dismissed it as a "baby" show. Then I told her it was a girl, and I watched her face light up. "Like me?" she asked. "Like you," I said.