For nearly 50 years, “Sesame Street” has taught American kids all the basics of childhood — letters, numbers, colors, sharing, manners and the joys of binge eating chocolate chip cookies.
Unlike many other children’s shows, however, Grover and his friends on the show haven’t been afraid to touch some topics that may be uncomfortable enough for adults, let alone children.
When the actor who played Mr. Hooper passed away in real life, Sesame Street didn’t just plug in a different actor or have the character disappear — it tackled the issue head on, allowing Big Bird to work through many of the same feelings any child has to go through when they lose a loved one.
The friends on Sesame Street haven’t been ones to shy away from other issues many children face, including differences in appearance, bullying, divorce and single parenthood. When it comes to children’s programming, it’s been some pretty groundbreaking stuff.
They are at it again.
The good folks at the Public Broadcasting Service will soon be introducing a new character on Sesame Street named Julia, who will join Oscar the Grouch, Mr. Snuffleupagus, Bert and Ernie and all the rest of the Muppets who have been entertaining children (and adults) for decades.
This character is going to be a little different than all the rest of the current characters — different in a way that has reached in and touched my heart and, undoubtedly, the hearts of millions of others, as well.
Julia is going to be the first autistic character in the history of the show.
This character is going to help children better understand a disorder than many adults don’t fully grasp. At a young age, children are going to be taught to be accepting of those who may seem a little different at first, but ultimately are the same as anyone else once you get beyond the surface. This comes as the perfect time, of course, as the autism epidemic only continues to grow in this country and around the world.
Currently, it’s estimated that one in 88 children born are autistic. There are millions of people living in this country who have autism. There are tens of millions of friends and family members who love and care for those with autism.
One of those millions on the autism spectrum is my son Max. I am one of the tens of millions of people who love someone with autism and hope to spread information about, and acceptance of, those with autism.
Thanks to Sesame Street, I think my job just got a little easier.
While we’ve generally been blessed with the acceptance Max has received from his classmates and other peers, we know it’s been a struggle at times to find acceptance in a world that doesn’t always understand what he’s going through. Playdates don’t materialize. Birthday party invitations somehow get lost in the mail. Rude comments get made during t-ball season.
While this saddens me from time to time, it doesn’t anger me, mostly because I know how hard it can be for many — adults and children — to understand autism and all that goes along with it. I’m hoping that if Sesame Street can begin to get children to understand at a young age, it will carry through to adulthood and, maybe, we’ll have future generations that don’t view autism with apprehension.
Our family got a sneak preview of Julia last weekend when “60 Minutes” did a segment on her. It was fascinating to watch Max viewing the segment. I’m not sure Max fully understands what being autistic means, but when he saw Julia flapping her hands — a common symptom for many with autism — me heart melted when he said, “She is just like me!”
Indeed she is, my precious little one.
Hopefully Julia will be revolutionary in teaching children to understand that people with autism are, for the most part, “just like me,” too.
Troy’s very own David Fong appears on Thursdays in the Troy Daily News. Contact him at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @thefong