Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

The Wonderfully Beautiful World of Sesame Street

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the entire world could be like Sesame Street.

The iconic children’s show, which also wised up generations of adults, has debuted a new character named Julia. She is different. She is autistic.

Before Julia the Muppet arrived on the real Sesame Street, she appeared in Sesame Street books to wide acclaim by parents of autistic children – and the delight of autistic children hungry to see themselves somewhere other than in a mirror.

Sesame Street producers took pains to learn about autism and create a fair portrayal of an autistic child, Stacey Gordon, the puppeteer who animates Julia, is the parent of an autistic child and understands the lowered eyes, flapping arms and verbatim repetition of words.

In the inaugural show, Big Bird worries that Julia doesn’t like him. Elmo, Julia’s friend, explains to Big Bird that Julia is wonderfully different.

Introduced during Autism Awareness Month, Julia is just part of the gang, which is the real message. You can be different and still belong.

Sesame Street has long been an eclectic, diverse neighborhood. Even garbage-loving grumps like Oscar the Grouch can fit in. (Puppeteer Carroll Spinney is the spirit behind both Big Bird and Oscar). It is one place in the world where children and adults feel comfortable visiting everyday.

You may not always start off comfortable. Sesame Street has introduced an HIV-positive Muppet, a boy with Down syndrome and a mother breastfeeding. The show featured a child explaining parts of his wheelchair, a Muppet whose dad was in jail, a celebration of natural hair and group discussions about death and adoption.

In 2016, Zari, a Muppet from Afghanistan, appeared on the show to promote girl’s rights.

What a contrast to the real world where children from low-income families are shamed because they have enough pennies to pay for a school lunch.

Too bad Sesame Street airs when most adults are drinking coffee at Starbucks.

Most of us could use a refresher on accepting people who are “different.” There are so many differences on Sesame Street, that you form an opinion we all may be different, which makes us pretty much all alike.

The gentility of puppets and their life-like qualities make them excellent exemplars. After all, puppets are just the plushy putty of puppeteers, who, generally speaking, are people who like to create imaginary worlds that amuse, inform and enlighten.

As comedians make us laugh about what we fear or even hate, puppeteers help us explore the inner reaches of our emotions. With one out of every 68 children in America diagnosed with some level of autism, we realize Julia could be our child.

Different children on Sesame Street quickly become like children everywhere. Maybe their skin is darker, hair kinkier and mannerisms quirkier, but they don’t really seem out of place with a giant yellow bird or a furry red monster who charms your socks off with his falsetto voice.

Sesame Street is a wonderfully beautiful place. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all streets were like it. That’s the kind of infrastructure plan we should support.








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