Over a year ago, I wrote in this column how people who are both in the public eye and autistic should come out of the closet and take pride in their disorder, so people who also have autism would not feel so shameful about it. I also wrote that there should be more positive, thoughtful portrayals of autistic people in the media, other than the lovable, Asperger’s-ish oddballs you see on sitcoms like “The Big Bang Theory.” (Some of you may know this issue hits close to home for me – my late brother was autistic.)
Now that we are officially in Autism Awareness Month, the long-running, public-TV institution “Sesame Street” is taking a major leap by introducing a Muppet character with autism. Her name is Julia, and she’ll have her own episode – aptly titled “Meet Julia” – premiering on HBO and PBS Kids Monday, April 10. Julia is a 4-year-old with fiery red hair, a limited vocabulary and a toy rabbit, Fluffster, that’s always by her side. While she’s shown usually avoiding eye contact, rarely accepting handshakes and having a meltdown when she aurally receives a lot of noise, she is fully embraced by Big Bird and the others. As that pixie Muppet Abby Cadabby explains in the episode, “She does things a little differently – in a Julia sort of way.”
“Sesame” has been trying to reach out to autistic children for more than a minute now. Back in 2015, before she took Muppet form, Julia was the focus of a digital storybook called “We’re Amazing, 1, 2, 3!” as part of a multimedia, Sesame Workshop initiative called “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.” When Muppet Julia was introduced in a “60 Minutes” piece a few Sundays back, the people behind the scenes discussed how they extensively worked with autism organizations so they could not only accurately portray a child with autistic characteristics, but also get non-autistic kids familiar with kids who have those characteristics. They even hired Phoenix puppeteer Stacey Gordon, who has a son with high-functioning autism, to properly give life to Julia.
As much of a plus as it is to see an autistic Muppet on TV screens, it’s still an uphill battle getting authentic portrayals of autistic people in the media.
Last fall, some of you may have seen Ben Affleck in the action flick “The Accountant.” He plays the titular character, a numbers-cruncher with high-functioning autism who also has the skills of a trained assassin. Apparently, his father in the movie, an army psychological warfare officer, immersed him in extreme military training so he could able to be stand up to life’s hardships.
Now, just by that description, you can probably tell that “Accountant” is a nutty, misguided movie. I don’t know if it was the intention of the filmmakers to show that autistic people can be action heroes too. But seeing our new Bruce Wayne as a mild-mannered man with a particular set of skills, able to take out a gang of killers like it’s nothing but still doesn’t have the social skills to spark a romance with co-star Anna Kendrick, was just awkward and ill-conceived. Speaking of heroes, the new “Power Rangers” movie actually features an autistic character – Billy, the Blue Ranger – in its rebooted Mighty Morphin crew. (I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve read good things online about the character.)
To me, a more plausible autistic hero is Carly Fleischmann, a young Canadian lady who communicates by typing on her computer. She wrote a 2012 memoir called “Carly’s Voice: Breaking Through Autism,” and has also ventured into becoming a YouTube personality. Last April, she launched her own web talk show, “Speechless with Carly Fleischmann,” where she spent the first episode chatting/flirting with Channing Tatum. Now, a couple weeks ago, she finally dropped episode two, where she chats/flirts with James Van Der Beek.
While Fleischmann’s celebrity one-on-ones, along with this new batch of autistic characters on the big and small screen, are positive steps forward, there should be more examples of properly presenting autism in contemporary pop culture. There certainly should be more in-depth documentaries about autism, especially how it affects families. (British documentarian Louis Theroux did a great BBC doc on that subject, “Extreme Love: Autism,” which you should search out on YouTube.) Last year, I saw an indie doc called “Asperger’s Are Us,” about a sketch-comedy troupe consisting of men who are all on the autism spectrum. While their comedy didn’t exactly have me rolling on the floor, I had to give them props for literally giving autism a stage – and showing audiences the good that can come from it.
Reach Craig Lindsey at firstname.lastname@example.org