In 2017, Sesame Street introduced a new character, Julia, a yellow Muppet preschooler who has autism. Julia exhibits behaviors that are associated with people who have an autism spectrum diagnosis, such as difficulty maintaining eye contact and repetitive speech.
The children’s program has always featured a diverse cast of Muppet and human characters to represent the neighborhood’s different ethnic, racial, age, gender, and monster groups, and its commitment to portraying a complex and realistic community extends to characters who experience medical differences. Linda, a deaf librarian; Tarah, a girl with osteogenesis imperfecta who uses a wheelchair; and Kami, a Muppet with HIV, show young viewers that people with disabilities or health challenges are part of everyone’s neighborhoods.
But Sesame Place, the Pennsylvania theme park and waterpark based on the show, can be a tough place for kids like Julia to visit. Crowded, noisy places like theme parks can be overwhelming to people with autism or other disorders that are affected by sensory experiences. Bright colors, noisy people, moving rides, chaotic lines, and unfamiliar expectations are difficult for people with autism spectrum disorders.
Now Sesame Place is making changes. The park has become a certified autism center and the world’s first autism-certified amusement park. When it opens for the season on April 28, the park will offer special activities, services, and staff to help children with autism have fun.
“If you have autism or you are in a family with somebody who has autism, the park environment can be very scary and very intense. It’s probably the last place you want to go,” said Sesame Park president Cathy Valeriano.
Now about 80 percent of the staff will be trained in how to interact with people who have autism. New guides will help visitors determine which spaces and rides would be most accessible based on their needs. Quiet rooms throughout the park provide low-sensory areas to retreat to when a break is needed, and adaptive aids such as noise-canceling headphones will be available.
April is Autism Awareness Month, and as more businesses and organizations become aware of issues associated with autism, more are adapting to accommodate people with this complex condition. Major movie theaters are offering sensory-friendly showings of films, during which volumes are turned down, lights are turned up, and moviegoers are welcome to talk or move about the theater as needed. Public attractions like zoos are offering sensory-friendly experiences for their visitors with special needs. Malls offer special sensory-friendly Santas for children with autism.
Even so, more education is needed to help the general public understand the behavior differences that may come with an autism diagnosis. Most critical: law enforcement and first responders need to be trained in what to expect and how to interact with people on the autism spectrum. People with autism have been the target of police brutality due to misunderstandings about the condition. In 2017, a Florida police officer shot the unarmed behavioral therapist of a man with autism while his hands were in the air and his patient played with a toy truck. In Arizona, a child with autism was hurt when police officers restrained him after mistaking his behavior for that of a drug user. In 2017, 987 people were shot and killed by police, and about 25 percent of them were people who suffered from mental illness or disabilities.
However, lack of education about autism may not be the problem. Instead, some advocates for people with disabilities say we need to end a culture of policing that enables officers to treat non-compliance, no matter what the cause, as grounds for shooting. That’s the kind of radical neighborliness that any child who watches Sesame Street can understand.