‘Sesame Street’ Faces Backlash For Stigmatizing Autism

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Despite being around since 1969, adding a new member to the muppet family isn’t something PBS or Sesame Street takes lightly. In fact, Julia was the first new addition to Sesame Street in more than a decade. As those who follow the longstanding children’s series know, Julia is somewhat unique to the show because she is autistic.

While the character was initially praised for raising awareness of autism, Sesame Street is now facing backlash after some believe two recent public service announcements stigmatize those with autism. According to Newsweek, the organization that originally helped create Julia — Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) — has officially cut ties with Sesame Street because of the PSAs.

For those who have not watched the PSAs yet, they are both part Autism Speaks’ “Screen for Autism” initiative. The purpose of the initiative is to encourage parents to start taking their children in at earlier ages to get them screened for autism as research shows early intervention can be more beneficial.

The first PSA features Julia playing with her dog when her father enters and asks why she is so excited. After being prompted, Julia uses a communication device – referred to in the PSA as her “talker” – to communicate with her father.

In a separate PSA, users watch Julia, Elmo, and her brother Sam form a band. Julia wears noise-reducing headphones to help with her sensory sensitivities to loud noises.

Those who have taken issue with the PSAs have felt the need to clarify that it is not the push to encourage parents to get their children screened for autism that has everyone up in arms. According to Fast Company, it is the material Autism Speaks provided for the PSAs that is causing the commotion.

“Like much of Autism Speaks’ recent advertising, these PSAs use the language of acceptance and understanding to push resources that further stigma and treat autistic people as burdens on our families,” ASAN penned in their official statement regarding why they decided to cut ties with Sesame Street.

According to the statement, ASAN takes issue with the message the material sends as they believe it tells parents blaming family struggles on children with autism is acceptable.

Moreover, the organization also argued the material paints autism out to be a “terrible disease” that someone can be cured of.

ASAN clarified that they did make their opinions on the material known during a workshop. While their stance was acknowledged, the production company refused to make any changes to the PSAs. After the production company refused to make changes, ASAN decided it was time to cut ties with Sesame Street.

Autism Speaks is an organization that has always been a very controversial topic with the autism community. Many people take issue with the references to “curing autism” that were once made in the organization’s promotional material. While the organization did remove the references three years ago, ASAN argues Autism Speaks has not changed their views.