Sesame Street is introducing someone new to the neighborhood, and she’s the show’s first character with autism. Meet Julia, who has joined the cast as part of Sesame Workshop’s new initiative, Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.
As noted on its site, the initiative looks to offer ways families can overcome common challenges and foster “an affirming narrative around autism for all families and kids.”
In discussing Julia, Sherrie Westin, executive VP of global impacts and philanthropy told People, “we want parents and children to understand that autism isn’t an uncomfortable topic.” She went on to say, “If you’re five years old, and see another kid not making eye contact with you, you may think that child doesn’t want to play with you. But that’s not the case. We want to create greater awareness and empathy.”
Julia is a digital character and will be included in the initiative’s storybooks, videos and free app, all of which explain autism from the perspective of a child with autism.
There are so many efforts underway for autism awareness and it’s amazing to see how much those efforts have opened doors for– and many people’s eyes to – the autism community. However, one area that doesn’t often get as much attention, but truly needs to, is the support of adults with autism. There are a lot of people that still think autism is a ‘childhood disorder’ that people tend to ‘grow out of.’ But as we know, there is a large, and growing, amount of underserved adults with autism – many who had services and support throughout their entire life until adulthood, when those services were no longer accessible.
So, what can be done? One big step in the right direction is how some companies are creating jobs for those touched by autism and/or providing training to develop the skills people need for employment. One small cupcake shop making a big impact is Puzzles Bakery and Café based in Schenectady, NY. Half of the staff at this café has autism. The owner, Sara Mae Hickey, who has a sister on the spectrum, saw a need in the community for employment opportunities for young adults with autism and said, “A lot of us are exposed in our everyday lives, but it’s really great to put a face on that and to know that the person bringing you lunch may or many not have special needs and that’s just normal.”
The café offers pet therapy and other programs for those it can’t employ. Since Puzzles opened, they have received 600 applications, but the café can only employ 25. (check out more in this article). That just goes to show that a tremendous need exists, and places like Puzzles, while a start, can’t do it alone. It’s our hope that others follow in their footsteps so that we can continue to support all people touched by autism throughout their life.
I came across this piece by Katie Hayes in which she eloquently describes how having an autistic sibling has made her a better person. It seems we often hear from parents of autistic children, with siblings being a more rare commenter. Katie provides insight on how her life was impacted by her brother, who has autism, and while there are always challenges to overcome, she shares how having a brother with autism has also enriched her life.
Katie writes, “My brother caused me to become a tougher and more compassionate individual than I would have otherwise, but I am still passive-aggressive, impatient and slightly selfish. I’m not the one who deserves your kindness; he does. Growing up, he constantly put me in uncomfortable situations, caused me to put his needs above my own and loved me more than anyone else.”
When I first came across Broadway actor Kelvin Moon Loh’s recent Facebook post that started off – “I am angry and sad. Just got off stage from today’s matinee and yes, something happened. Someone brought their autistic child to the theater…” I was upset. Reading that first bit of the post, my heart just sank. I thought it was going to be a rant about how that child shouldn’t have been at the theater, likely calling out the family for being inconsiderate or something along those lines. Unfortunately, as we all well know, many of those types of posts exist. However, after reading on, I was pleased to see that the post was quite the opposite.
During a matinee performance of “The King and I” in NYC, Loh says that during an intense scene, a young boy with autism began making some loud noises, which drew some glares and unpleasant comments from other audience members. And, thankfully, Loh wasn’t going to take it. Following the performance, Loh posted a heartfelt request for empathy and understanding for the boy and his mother. In his post he wrote, “When did we as theater people, performers and audience members become so concerned with our own experiences that we lose compassion for others?”
Loh, who was a schoolteacher before Broadway, told TODAY.com that he felt he had to say something and to ask for people to try to understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. He said “parents of autistic children sit there with such fear and terror that this episode could occur. I was watching a mother’s nightmare happen, and I just wanted to have her know that what she’s doing is right in trying to expose her child to the theater, and there are advocates supporting her.”
And while Loh may not have heard from that mom in the theater, his message has reached others – whether it gives families touched by autism encouragement to try new experiences, or if it gives people a bit more understanding so that they may think twice the next time before passing harsh judgment.
We are glad there are advocates like Loh out there stepping up because we could all benefit from his message of compassion.