By Mike McMahan, LPC
On Sunday night, CBS’s 60 Minutes featured an introduction to Julia, a new character on the long-running Sesame Street series. But Julia is unlike any other character ever introduced on the show, as she has a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The report itself is interesting and worth a read or watch as it contains a brief look at how Sesame Street has demonstrably achieved its goal of educating kids. But my favorite moment comes from puppeteer Stacy Gordon, who is herself the mother of a child with an autism diagnosis: “It means that our kids are important enough to be seen in society,” she says. And she adds that she values “Having Julia on the show and seeing all of the characters treat her with compassion…“
This is, indeed, an important aspect. While children certainly don’t learn everything from TV and entertainment (or shouldn’t anyway), it is undeniable that what they see in media influences their perceptions of the world. And, according to the CDC, they are going to be seeing a lot of children with autism, as the prevalence of the diagnosis is on the rise. Whether this is due to the disorder being diagnosed more frequently or actually occurring more often is currently a subject of debate.
It will be interesting to see how Sesame Street develops this character, as the producers recognize that autism is a very individualized disorder, with very few children exhibiting all of the behaviors associated with the diagnosis. This fact likely plays into the diagnosis rate. In fact, the specificity of the diagnosis will likely change in the future, as many researchers believe that autism is likely a family of disorders. Given that the number of cases is increasing, a lot of money will be spent on this matter so mental health professionals and families effected by autism will likely know more in the future.
How Sesame Street will (or won’t) help kids and families remains to be seen. However, it is undeniable that this move will create a sense of possibility for families with autism. Caring for a child with autism can be incredibly challenging, and Sesame Street is allowing families everywhere to dream and imagine that their children can be better understood by others, and thus, have a better shot at finding their place as contributing members of our complex world.
Mike McMahan, LPC, is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
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Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture