Autism acceptance is what Muppet Julia is about

Originally published in the Batesville Daily Guard

April 20, 2017

As many of you with young children might know by now, Julia has made her debut on Sesame Street.

The newest member of the Sesame Street Muppet cast is a young girl of 4 who has bright red hair, big green eyes and autism.

What is autism? Most of you probably already know the answer, but for those who don’t, here’s some facts.

Autism spectrum disorder affects about 1 in 68 children, according to estimates from CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. People who have it experience difficulty with communication, difficulty with social interactions, obsessive interests and repetitive behaviors.

As a spectrum disorder it has a range of severity, from barely noticeable to debilitating. Famous people who fall on the spectrum include actress and activist Daryl Hannah, Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri and professor and actor Dan Akroyd.

Julia debuted April 11 on television. Her first appearance was actually through an e-book released in 2015 where she was shown to be a friend of Elmo and Abby’s.

What Julia does is show that even though she doesn’t communicate like everyone else, she can still be their friend. By bringing her into the homes across the country, kids learn what autism is and see that children with autism are not weird or scary.

Of course, I wouldn’t be writing about this if there were not people out there who didn’t think that is a good thing.

“Doing its part to help normalize a growing health condition that barely even existed 30 years ago, the popular children’s television show ‘Sesame Street’ has unveiled a new Muppet character with whom at least one in 68 children living in the United States today can now identify,” says Ethan Huff, whose bio calls him a “freelance writer” and “health enthusiast.” The quote comes from a column called “Sign of the times: Sesame Street introduces a character with autism.”

The article appeared on NaturalNews.com, one of the most popular sites that constantly perpetuates the “vaccines cause autism” myth and has its articles widely circulated on social media. They, along with celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Robert De Niro, have caused many people to fear an innovation that has probably saved more lives than all other types of medicine developed by humans put together.

Of course, that’s the first sentence and Huff gets something majorly wrong within the first 15 words. Vaccine didn’t just “barely” exist 30 years ago. Sure, back then only one in 2,000 children were diagnosed with it, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist. In actuality, the diagnosis was narrow back then, often encompassing the most obvious cases. In 1994, the spectrum was expanded to include Asperger Syndrome, which is much more common, as well as the expansion and improvement of screening techniques. Asperger was not alone in this expansion, but it was the most well known of the disorders. According to Danish studies, two-thirds of the increases were due to these expansions.

There are also claims that autism didn’t even exist until the last few decades. This is untrue. Autism was classified with schizophrenia, which was not discovered to be an unrelated mental illness until the 1960s. Having a late start, it took years to figure out how to actually define it and what parameters it fit in.

Huff goes on to say “Normalizing autism in light of this is a disturbing phenomenon, mainly because the next generation of individuals likely won’t even think twice about children having autism.”

“Normalizing” is a term that is usually used negatively. People talk about “normalizing” things like racism and violence in debates all the time. Normalizing, you see, is what people often say in regard to things they don’t want to be normal.

This sounds dangerously close to the mindset of “we should be ashamed and hide these people from view.” It sounds to me like someone wants to treat the autistic as lepers were in times of old.

That would be a massive step backwards, considering we’ve only recently (at least as far as a civilization) started to treat people with disorders as actual people, instead of objects of shame to be hidden away at home or locked up in institutions.

So when it comes to the autistic, we should take a lesson from Big Bird and see an autistic person as one who does things differently instead of a person who is “damaged.”

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