Parent sees autistic son accepted by another child at the pool, thanks Sesame Street character

“It can be off-putting to abled kids because they think he’s ignoring them, or else acting weird"
July 28, 2018 5:40 pm Last Updated: July 28, 2018 5:40 pm

It can be difficult for children with autism to make friends, and just as challenging to explain to kids why their peers with autism act so unusually.

But as one parent discovered recently, positive media representation could help bridge that divide and help children understand, and even embrace, the differences that come with autism.

When Lu Everman, from Tennessee, took their 4-year-old son Julian to the pool for swim class, Everman was worried how the other children might react. Julian has autism, and does things like flap his hands in the pool.

Then, the parent overheard a young girl talking about Julian to her grandmother—and was so surprised that they shared the heartwarming exchange in a now-viral tweet:

It turned out, the girl had recognized that Julian had autism, but decided to embrace instead of reject him—thanks to her exposure to a character named Julia on the television show Sesame Street.

“It was wonderful to realize there are abled kids who don’t feel threatened by or uncomfortable around him,” Everman told Today. “Seeing a girl basically correct her grandmother on the ins and outs of playing with an autistic child was magical.”

Representation matters

On Sesame Street, Julia is a 4-year-old Muppet who has nonverbal autism—but despite her differences, is always loved and supported by the other characters.

Since her debut in April 2017, the show has used Julia to teach kids that children with autism sometimes do things differently or don’t communicate as you’d expect, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make fun playmates.

In that clip, Julia doesn’t respond to Big Bird’s friendly greeting, and he assumes she doesn’t like him until other characters assure him that Julia just “[does] things a little differently, in a Julia sort of way.”

This is a situation Everman has seen in the real world with Julian:

“It can be off-putting to abled kids because they think he’s ignoring them, or else acting weird,” Everman said.

Julia is the show’s first autistic character, but the girl at the pool proves the show’s lessons aren’t being lost on children.

“Julia and Julian were the same. When the little girl in his class saw Julia, she had seen Julian,” Everman said. “I don’t think I’ve ever loved a Muppet so much.”

Through Julia, we aim to show that all kids are amazing, and that all kids can be friends. #Julia #SesameSreet

Posted by Julia Sesame Street on Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Changing perspectives

While Everman, who also has autism, is appreciating the television depiction now, they were initially skeptical about Sesame Street‘s inclusivity effort as too broad and stereotypical: “It hit so many tropes, and every autistic kid is different,” Everman tweeted.

But seeing things from a different point of view, the parent thinks the show is doing important work introducing kids to significant lessons.

“It’s easy … to forget exactly what that representation means for a child, as a child,” Everman told Today. “Four-year-olds don’t understand representational nuance.”

“The best way to explain something is to meet them where they are, and that’s what ‘Sesame Street’ has done with Julia.”

Hopefully the dialogue started by Julia and Sesame Street will continue to shape kids’ perspectives, more children will be as open-minded as the girl at the pool, and kids like Julian will find it easier to make new friends.

Maybe a whole generation will be shaped by these new characters they see on TV. And if it can work for autism, perhaps it can work for all sorts of underrepresented disabilities.

“It’s a platform for them learning there’s nothing wrong with using sign language, or having a wheelchair, or wearing an insulin pump, or any other disability under the sun,” Everman tweeted.