By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For the Birmingham Times
As society continues to accept those with autism, so are the media.
In April, “Sesame Street” added Julia, a character with autism, to its cast of Muppets. In the March release of the “Power Rangers” film, actor R.J. Cyler portrays Billy, the Blue Ranger, who is autistic. And in the 2016 film “The Accountant,” Ben Affleck stars as Christian Wolff, a small-town accountant on the autism spectrum who secretly freelances for criminal organizations.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a general term used to communicate an individual’s challenges. People who function on the autism spectrum share similar features, but their skills and deficits may vary widely.
Films with autistic characters are not a recent phenomenon. Arguably the most well-known autism-related film is 1988’s “Rain Man,” which won four Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond, an adult with autism.
“Not trying to speak for the autism community but, knowing how those characters are, it is certainly a point of pride to have representation in the media,” said Justin Schwartz, MD, who treats autistic children in clinics at Children’s of Alabama. “Children with autism are going to be part of the fabric of society now and into the future. In none of those movies is autism something that’s portrayed entirely as a disability.
“Autism is something we talk about as a way to describe someone’s uniqueness, their individuality,” he continued. “That idea of autism lends itself to increased acceptance and appreciation for what people with autism can bring to the rest of the world.”
“Sesame Street” has always had a way of making everyone feel accepted. That certainly goes for Julia, a Muppet youngster with blazing red hair, bright green eyes—and autism. Rather than being treated like an outsider, which too often is the plight of kids on the spectrum, Julia is one of the gang.
For more than a year, Julia has existed in print and digital illustrations as the centerpiece of a multifaceted initiative by Sesame Workshop called “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.” She has been the subject of a storybook released along with videos, e-books, an app, and a website. The goal is to promote a better understanding of what the Autism Speaks advocacy group describes as “a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.”
Julia has been brought to life in fine Muppet style. She made her TV debut during the “Meet Julia” episode of “Sesame Street,” which aired on April 10, on both PBS and HBO. Additional videos featuring Julia will be available online.
Developing Julia and all the other components of this campaign required years of consultation with organizations, experts, and families within the autism community, according to Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president of U.S. Social Impact.
“In the U.S., one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder,” she said. “We wanted to promote a better understanding and reduce the stigma often found around these children. We’re modeling the way both children and adults can look at autism from a strength-based perspective: finding things that all children share.”
Julia is at the heart of this effort. But while she represents the full range of children on the spectrum, she isn’t meant to typify each one of them.
“Just as we look at all children as being unique, we should do the same thing when we’re looking at children with autism,” Betancourt said.
In “Power Rangers,” released in March, R.J. Cyler plays Billy, the Blue Ranger, who is on the autistic spectrum. In an interview with ScreenRant.com, Cyler talked about his character’s unique attributes in the film: “I just wanted to show a different viewpoint of people that are seen as being on the spectrum, right? Or people diagnosed with autism. … I feel like us being outsiders looking in, and I take that. … I cast my own stone when I say that … there’s a lot I didn’t know before.”
“I actually sat down and shut my mouth and actually just listened and accepted every bit of information with no judgment. … I knew it was my job to show that people on the spectrum are just regular people, literally, just how we talk, how me and [Becky G, Yellow Ranger] talk. They feel the same way. They have the same emotions. They wanna be loved. They want people to love. They want relationships. They want connections,” Cyler said. “I was really excited to be able to play that. … I know it means so much to so many people. … All of us are affected by it … and it’s something I feel like we needed to have in this movie, to be honest.”
The Associated Press and ScreenRant.com contributed to this article.