Sesame Street recently introduced an autistic character to its cast, and while that may sound like progress, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network disagrees. The advocacy group recently ended its partnership with Sesame Street, claiming that Sesame Street's approach further stigmatizes autistic children and adults.
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a range of conditions that exist on a broad spectrum. People with autism may have challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. An estimated 1 in 59 children in the United States are affected by autism.
In the past, people with autism were stigmatized and families even hid their children away from society. Today, we know that autism is not something to be ashamed of. It is important to reach out and befriend those with autism. Parents and society need to model welcoming all sorts of people with open arms so that children internalize these values.
Sesame Streets decision to add an autistic character to the cast was intended to help raise awareness about autism. ASAN collaborated with the network to help create the Muppet character Julia. However, Sesame Street may have gone about things the wrong way.
ASAN announced its decision to cut ties with Sesame Street on Monday. According to the advocacy group, the educational show has further stigmatized those with autism, as opposed to raising awareness about acceptance.
The problem is that Sesame Street's Public Service Announcement directs parents to resources from Autism Speaks. Autistic people have criticized this nonprofit's messaging as stigmatizing for years.
According to ASAN, Autism Speaks paints autism as a terrible disease. It encourages parents to grieve for their autistic child's life, as if they were dead, and blames family stress on autistic family members.
It is really unfortunate that such a well-intentioned plan has been thrown off base. Exposing children to people with all sorts of differences through television and other media is a step in the right direction for society. Hopefully, Sesame Street and other major children's networks will look further into the specifics of their messaging going forward.