Health & Medicine

New faces of autism in ‘Sesame Street,’ ‘Power Rangers’ movie could help dispel stereotypes

Eric Neyer, 4, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at 17 months. His mother Ava Neyer says she is looking forward to the new autistic Muppet character on “Sesame Street” and how it will help children learn about the disorder.
Eric Neyer, 4, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at 17 months. His mother Ava Neyer says she is looking forward to the new autistic Muppet character on “Sesame Street” and how it will help children learn about the disorder. jvillegas@sacbee.com

On a sunny day on Sesame Street, Abby Cadabby asks her new neighbor Julia if she wants to play a game. Julia, a red-headed Muppet in a pink smock, doesn’t answer at first. Instead, she stares straight ahead as she swings, then moves to the grass to play with her stuffed bunny, Fluffster. Abby, pouting and confused, asks Elmo why Julia doesn’t like her very much.

“Julia sometimes does things differently because Julia has autism,” Elmo explains. “Abby can ask Julia to play again. Abby could use fewer words and wait a little bit. That usually works for Elmo.”

A few beats later, the three Muppets are playing the game I spy, which Julia wins in short order.

“Sesame Street” producers have said they created Julia to help explain autism spectrum disorder to millions of viewers and present accurate portrayals of the condition on screen, countering decades of what critics have said are stereotypical depictions of autistic people. Many households nationwide with autistic family members are hoping Julia, along with an autistic Power Ranger revealed in a new movie earlier this month, will change the way next generations of children view autism.

Showing an autistic child involved in positive group activities can help encourage children on the spectrum to engage with their peers while also teaching non-autistic children what to expect from friends and relatives, said Leonard Abbeduto, director of the UC Davis MIND Institute, which studies neurodevelopmental disorders including autism.

“There’s still a lack of integration for students on the spectrum in the classroom, because teachers don’t know how to support them often, and children don’t necessarily understand the way they behave and the things they might need,” Abbeduto said. “If (children) have knowledge of what autism is, they won’t be fearful of people who interact with the world differently.”

Autism spectrum disorder is an umbrella diagnosis given to people often marked by differently evolved communication skills and other developmental traits. People with autism might avoid eye contact, not engage with people, focus intensely on tasks or repeat phrases and behaviors, among other differences. Autism prevalence has climbed in recent years, and the disorder now affects an estimated 1 in 68 children in the U.S.

Sesame Street will welcome Julia, a Muppet with autism, to the show in April. The Sesame Workshop initiative "Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children" created Julia as a continued commitment to the autism community, supporting a miss

Julia won’t appear on “Sesame Street” until April 10, but in preview clips she speaks in fragmented sentences, usually only when prompted. She doesn’t always greet other characters or answer their questions. She also flaps her hands when she’s excited and is extra sensitive to loud noises – traits common in some people with autism. Still, she happily sings along to the show’s theme song and plays peek-a-boo with Elmo.

Ava Neyer, of Rancho Cordova, said she’s looking forward to using “Sesame Street” to explain autism to her twin 4-year-old boys, one of whom has autism. Eric, the more withdrawn of the twins, was diagnosed with the disorder at 17 months and has a harder time making friends than Alan.

She said the new “Sesame Street” character will paint a positive picture of autism for Eric while teaching Alan and his non-autistic classmates that “different” doesn’t mean “bad.”

“When my son goes to kindergarten, I want the teacher and everyone to be upfront about his diagnosis, so the children will know how to interact with him,” Neyer said. “If the children have seen ‘Sesame Street,’ if they’ve seen people interacting with autistic people in a positive way, I think that would really help him be able to integrate.”

In one “Sesame Street” clip, Julia is seen making a “boing-boing” sound with her mouth and hopping around enthusiastically – a typical behavior for some autistic children who enjoy movement and repetition. On a real school playground, students might tease the bouncing classmate, but on “Sesame Street,” the Muppets watch Julia and join in, creating a new playground game called “boing-boing tag.”

Kim Tozer, executive director of Sutterville Preschool, said she’s seen more children with autism spectrum disorder in her classroom in recent years. They are sometimes ridiculed for playing differently or not joining in group games, she said, although she teaches her students to be patient with their autistic classmates. She said she hopes the new “Sesame Street” character will bring the message home.

“They don’t flow as easily in whatever aspect, whether it’s noise or touch or how they’re processing what’s going on. They’re a little bit different, and kids will pick up on that,” Tozer said of children on the spectrum. “We can teach them, even as early as age 3 or 4, to be a little quieter or give them a little extra time. It teaches tolerance, when they’re all together.”

Just as “Sesame Street” announced Julia’s debut, the makers of the new “Power Rangers” movie, released last Friday, announced that Billy, the blue ranger, is on the autism spectrum. They have not released further details about what traits the character possesses, although one Vox review notes that Billy has trouble reading people’s emotions and doesn’t get his fellow Rangers’ jokes.

John Matthias, of Roseville, said he looks forward to taking his 15-year-old autistic son Wesley to see the film. In particular, he’s curious to see if Wesley, who has trouble forming full sentences but loves going to the movies, will connect with the autistic character.

“His awareness of autism itself is there, but it’s there in a very limited way,” Matthias said. “He doesn’t really understand in what way he’s different or other kids on the spectrum are different. I am kind of excited for him to see the character and see if he’ll recognize any similarities.”

Matthias hopes the film will at least help stop the bullying that many autistic teenagers experience. About 63 percent of students on the autism spectrum experience bullying at some point, according to a 2014 study from the Interactive Autism Network.

“Maybe (kids) will be less apt to do that if one of their superheroes has the qualities they might have made fun of,” Matthias said. “So, all of a sudden, it’s not such a big negative.”

When most people think of autism in popular culture, they still remember the 1988 film “Rain Man,” said Jack Gallagher, a Sacramento actor and playwright whose 21-year-old son, Liam, has autism. The iconic Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman film, which won the Academy Award for best picture, helped raise awareness about autism, he said, but it was also misleading.

“If I were portraying someone on the spectrum, I would portray them as a normal person with some quirky social issues, and not as someone who can count every toothpick on the floor or tell you every president’s middle name,” Gallagher said, referring to a scene from the film. “For a long time there were a lot of stereotypical qualities that were given to folks on the spectrum, and now people understand that’s not true. I hope these characterizations are more accurate than they used to be.”

Spot-on portrayals of autism can be difficult, considering all of the different ways the disorder manifests, advocates said. Some people with autism, especially those with what’s called Asperger’s syndrome, are known as extremely intelligent but aloof (think Alan Turing of “The Imitation Game”). Others, such as Arnie in the 1993 film “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” have lower cognitive abilities and struggle to understand concepts such as safety and etiquette.

Writing a single character that encompasses all autistic traits would be impossible, said Alex Plank, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and producer with autism who advises on movies and TV shows. But creating more autistic characters of any stripe – as long as they aren’t offensive – will help combat stigma, he said.

When Plank, now 30, began consulting on the 2013 television series “The Bridge,” which featured an autistic protagonist, he said the actress, who was not autistic, was extremely serious when she played the character – one of several misconceptions he works to erase.

“A lot of times there’s a character who doesn’t smile, ever. And that doesn’t make sense to me – I smile a lot,” Plank said. “Another problem I see is that the character doesn’t have empathy. What people don’t realize a lot of the time is that autistic people have empathy. They may have trouble expressing it, but they have as much if not more of it than anyone else.”

Neyer said she hopes that the growing visibility of autistic people in pop culture will lead to more opportunities for them in the real world, where many autistic adults struggle to find accommodating workplaces or educational settings.

 ‘Sesame Street’ is showing videos where the children are joining into the autistic world, into their games, and meeting them where they are instead of trying to pull them out and make them act neurotypical,” she said. “I just hope they can change the mindset around autism.”

Preston Rogers, a 15-year-old autistic boy, described his experience taking part in SkateMD, a program that uses skateboarding to teach disabled kids life and skateboarding skills. "There was hope inside of me and it burst," he said.

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

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