Why is ‘Sesame Street’s’ New Muppet with Autism a Girl?

Welcome Julia! Julia is Sesame Street’s new autistic character, and she will be making her debut in April, which is Autism Awareness Month, to seemingly universal approval from both parents and experts. Scott Badesch, president and CEO of the Autism Society of America, says that “they got it right.” Badesch, whose son has autism, was one of a number of people consulted by the show. “When you can have a character that shows what autism is, it will help everyone who watches Sesame Street have a really good appreciation of what autism is, in a positive way,” Badesch told USA Today.

Many people have pointed out that the show realistically presents Julia’s difficulties (she gets upset upon hearing loud noises and has trouble engaging with other characters) as well as her strengths (she is a good artist). But if the aim were to present viewers with a typical autistic kid, why did they choose to make the character a girl?

Boys, after all, are between four and five times more likely to be diagnosed with autism as girls are. Scientists are not entirely certain why this is the case. Some speculate that the causes might be genetic. Marjorie Solomon, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of California Davis MIND Institute explained, “The basic thought is that girls have less vasopressin and higher natural oxytocin . . . And oxytocin is a social hormone, so that would be protective.” Vasopressin in animals is linked to aggressive defense of territory and mates.

Regardless, if you were going to present children with the autistic kid they are most likely to encounter, it would be a boy. Even the puppeteer who plays Julia has a son who is autistic. It’s not that there are no girls who suffer from autism, of course, but being “on the spectrum” is a burden that is borne most heavily by boys in our society.

Indeed, the fact that most autistic kids are boys probably makes it more difficult for mostly female teachers and even other kids to relate to them. Who wants a scary antisocial boy to be their friend? Those stories about classmates not showing up when an autistic kid invites them to a birthday party? Those are stories about boys.

But an anti-social girl? She might seem more approachable. In school settings especially, many parents and teachers have bought into the notion that boys are more antisocial and potentially violent (when in many cases, of course, it is that schools simply expect boys to behave like girls—sitting still for long periods of time, developing fine motor skills early, and socializing easily). It might have been harder to create a sympathetic male autistic character for Sesame Street, but it would certainly have been worth it.

There are those who think that autism is underdiagnosed in girls and that its symptoms may look slightly different in girls than boys. Writing in New York Magazine a couple of years ago when Julia’s creation was first announced, Melissa Dahl gushed, “The little Muppet’s existence may make families with autistic children, and especially girls, feel a little more seen and understood.” But Sesame Street’s goal was presumably not to increase the diagnoses of autism among girls but to make kids with autism feel like they are represented and to make other kids recognize that autistic kids should be accepted and not ostracized or feared.

Sesame Street has long had an appealing way of introducing children to difficult subjects without making them scary—death, for instance—but also giving them tools to understand and relate to people who are different from themselves. The show went to great lengths over the past couple of years to make sure that their depiction of autism was as accurate and compassionate as possible. Unfortunately, it seems, they were just a bit off the mark.

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4 responses to “Why is ‘Sesame Street’s’ New Muppet with Autism a Girl?

  1. It is correct to question having a girl represent autistic children on Sesame Street, but the article may have provided the answer to the question without realizing it. The article notes that most teachers are women, and most have problems with boys on the spectrum.

    This is not new. In the 1960s, when I was in school, male teachers had even more problems with an Aspie like myself than did the women. They had a solution, and it wasn’t working, but when you have only a hammer to solve problems with social nimbleness, then every “problem child” looks like a nail. Their solution was team sports.

    For those few of us far enough along the spectrum, it was torture. Worse, the attitudes of administrative and coaching staff towards people with my lacks led to many severe assaults by team members against those who were prominently “not with the program”. I doubt all of them were as bad as my father, who in the summer of 1960 had told me that “no boy can become a decent man without playing team sports”, but that ideology was dominant in the 1960s.

    It took until the year 2000 for the Vancouver School District to initiate a program that correctly diagnosed the problem as being an attitude of the staff towards males who could not be reliably socially nimble. It took 3 years to run the staff through the program, and in the end they still had to “allow early retirement” for some who could not give up on “the universal healing power of team sports”. I was told in 2008, however, that the number of assaults against children on the spectrum was zero for the 5 previous years.

    Today’s dominant ideology in schools is thinly disguised academic feminism. It wants even more social nimbleness than the old coach/administrators did, but at least it doesn’t turn a blind eye to beatings in every case. That still happens in some schools, granted, just not as often.

    This ideology often turns to a different method, …medication. Trying to medicate boys into girls has become a new “team sports”-level of standard response to boys, much less to Aspies, much less those farther along the spectrum away from female norms. I am *hoping* that the Sesame Street pick of a realistic depiction of a girl autistic can serve to make female teachers familiar with the symptoms without the anti-male prejudice interfering. Introducing a male autistic character later on would help, but that has the twin problem of “too many from that minority” and the total number of characters.

    We will have to see if this works. I am told many teachers in early grades make sure their kids watch Sesame Street. If so, the teachers will be getting the message at the same time, and that may be more useful than the effects of students seeing an autistic child onscreen.

  2. Virtue Signaling is why. A “girl” autistic checks yet another virtue box.

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