Last week, my wife, my two kids, and me did something for the first time: we sat down together as a family, in the living room, to watch a TV show.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t exactly the first time. When Dar and I watch sports, the other two drift in and out, and I’m pretty sure all of them have been in the room at the same time as me. The same thing happens when R watches his kiddie shows and cartoons (including Pixar movies), all content that my wife often finds aversive.
But this was different. This was more like those storied “family hours” of TV, more like the way we figure American families watched the M*A*S*H finale, more deliberate, more conscious, more of a choice.
This was watching Sesame Street introduce Julia, its first ostensibly autistic character.
I say “ostensibly” because these days, you can get in trouble for suggesting that so-and-so is NOT on the spectrum. Is Kermit the Frog the sort of control freak that suffers a mild form? Maybe. Let’s not go there. Let’s admit that the onscreen presence of Julia represents a milestone for all disabled people, and work from there.
Sesame Street is already important for our family. For years now, every time Dar has asked for TV, that’s the show I’ve put on. Whether because of me or himself (chicken and egg problem), Dar seems to like Sesame Street (and Warriors basketball) the best. Although Elmo remains R’s favorite stuffie, the one he absolutely can’t sleep without (don’t get me started on this topic), these days R usually prefers to watch something more, uh, commercial than Sesame Street, but he’ll put it on as a gesture of kindness to his brother.
I’ve blogged about Sesame Street several times, including the time that I gave advance absolution for Julia. I realize that every word and every gesture of the Julia character will be dissected and debated by my little autism community, and I never felt Sesame Street was required to do every little thing perfectly.
(By the way, I love that South Park takes what feels like ten minutes to get a topical episode on the air, and I also love that Sesame Street announced Julia 18 months ago and took that long to try to get it right. Different approaches work for different types of great TV.)
That said, I was very impressed. The episode, “Meet Julia,” pulled out the show’s biggest guns: Elmo, Abby, and Big Bird. (In a refreshing surprise, the token adult was not Chris but Alan, who replaced Mr. Hooper long ago.) A new character on Sesame Street doesn’t get introduced the way, say, Lily’s Dad was introduced on How I Met Your Mother; instead we must needs enter the timeless comfort zone, where Elmo and Abby have always known Julia, and we may rely on Big Bird to be our wondering toddler and audience surrogate. With consummate politeness, Big Bird tries to introduce himself to Julia, to shake her hand, but nothing.
Yep. Been there.
Alan explains that Julia is simply really involved with her painting.
I have made excuses like that, but not that one, because Dar never gets anywhere near that involved with any art project.
Abby says she loves the squishy feeling of finger paints, to which Julia recoils, to which Abby says, “you’re right, I’m sorry Julia, I know you don’t like the way it feels.”
Abby apologized? Abby, who has literally never been wrong in any other moment of any other episode of Sesame Street? Now I know the big guns are out.
Elmo and Abby show their paintings, and Big Bird loves them. Big Bird asks to see Julia’s. She doesn’t respond. Alan says, “Sometimes it takes Julia a while to answer.”
Alan asks again, and Julia says “see your painting? Yes.” Dar can’t talk. Julia’s painting is a very recognizable rendering of her favorite stuffie, her bunny. Dar has no long-abiding interest in any particular comfort-object and can only draw lines back and forth (on our furniture if we’re not careful). So Julia can already do three things Dar can’t even approach.
But it’s not about that. For us it’s more about just watching the show and absorbing it. Which is something Dar isn’t really doing. He drifts in and out of the room. He sometimes loses interest even in his favorite shows. That’s Dar.
Abby loves Julia’s painting, calls her “so creative.” Julia laughs and flaps her arms. Big Bird agrees and asks Julia for a high five. Instead she laugh-flaps her way offstage with Abby. Dar never arm-flaps. He sometimes hits himself, but that’s different.
Big Bird is hurt; he can barely believe that anyone won’t high five. He expresses his concern that she doesn’t like him privately to Alan, who says “you’re just meeting her for the first time.” Yeah, been there. Big Bird says he figures she’s shy. Alan says it’s not just that, she has…
And then, at 4 minutes and 15 seconds into the 15th episode of this show’s 47th year, a new word appears on Sesame Street: “…autism. She likes it when people know that.”
“Autism? What’s autism?” asks Big Bird.
“Well,” answers Alan, “For Julia, it means she may not answer you right away.”
“Yeah,” says Elmo as he and Abby enter. “Julia doesn’t say a lot.”
“That’s right,” agrees Alan. “And, she may not do what you expect, like give you a high-five.”
“Yeah,” says Abby. “She does things just a little differently. In a Julia sort of way.”
Abby and Elmo hasten to call Julia fun to play with. And Julia enters, saying “play play play.” Alan suggests they think of a game. Big Bird suggests tag. Julia bounces up and down and laughs.
Alan says, “I think that’s a yes.”
Abby says kindly that Julia is bouncing up and down like a rubber ball. Abby says, “boing boing boing,” and Abby repeats it, and pretty soon Abby and Elmo and Julia are playing tag while bouncing.
Big Bird watches them go and says, “I’ve never seen tag played like that.”
Alan answers, smiling, “Julia does do some things a little differently.” (I could just imagine the script session behind the scenes: make sure he smiles and says SOME! But don’t make him emphasize the word!)
Big Bird: “Oh, because of her autism?”
Alan: “Sometimes people with autism do things that might seem confusing to you.”
Big Bird: “Like when she flaps her hands?”
Alan: “That’s just something she does when she’s excited. But you know what? Julia also does some things that you might want to try.”
Abby christens “boing-tag” a whole new game, and eventually Big Bird joins in.
I say to R, who has curled himself into my lap, “You see that? Julia has autism, just like your brother.”
This may shock readers of my blog: we have never, ever told R that Dar has “autism.” The word just doesn’t come up that much. Perhaps R gleaned it, and certainly he understands that his brother can’t communicate the way that his friends can, but we never put a name on it. But in that moment, I felt like, well, if Big Bird can say it, then my 4-year-old child who writes long sentences and reads full Dr. Seuss books to me can certainly say it. Well, I ask him if he can say it.
“Autism?” R says for the first time.
“Right,” I say, and look at my wife. This is our life, all four of us. There is no other.
On TV, a siren interrupts the boing tag, and Julia covers her ears and freaks out. She says “noise, noise, noise.” Elmo and Abby and Alan try to calm her down. Big Bird comes hopping over, taps Julia, and says, “tag, you’re it.” Julia freaks more, and Big Bird trips. Alan finds Julia’s stuffie and they leave.
Big Bird expresses more sadness, this time to Elmo and Abby, and the latter two assure Big Bird that he did nothing wrong. They explain that it was too loud for her sensitive ears, that sometimes she needs a break, and that she’ll be back to play soon.
And then the show goes where I’ve never seen it: above the set, on a rooftop. Alan says he can see why Julia loves it so much. Julia pets her stuffie repeatedly. THAT is something Dar is known to do. He pets and strokes certain things over and over. Glad they got that.
From the rooftop, we see Hooper’s store from a whole new angle. Alan is calm, and Julia is now calm. She laughs to see and say “Big Bird.” Alan says, in a specific tone I know from speaking to non-verbal kids, “Oh, because he’s a small bird from here, right?” She laughs.
Alan and Julia join Big Bird; she gives him a flower. Big Bird says they both like to flap and play, and she flaps and laughs. And Abby and Elmo ask if they can join in, and Big Bird says, “Sure, we can all be friends…” as the music starts up.
I think it may be a legal requirement that every Sesame Street 10-minute skit must now end in a song. And this one will make you think: uh, hasn’t Sesame Street sung this already? You know, celebrate our differences, and such. Julia bobs her head as Alan, Big Bird, Abby, and Elmo sing the chorus: “we can all be friends.”
Julia takes the next line: “We can all be friends.”
She can sing? And loves to do it? Yeah, that’s way past Dar. But hey, that’s okay. I’m just trying to get Dar just to watch this, not very successfully.
All on screen: “It feels better when we all play together; we can all be friends!”
Post-song giggling (trademark Children’s Television Workshop).
And more boing tag as the skit wraps up. The episode’s larger theme is about making and keeping friends. Which is, you know, too easy, but also not bad.
Dar is “tee-tee-tee”ing around the room. R is more than ready to change the channel to Nick Jr, and does. But wifey and I share a look.
Something felt important, and right.