What it Means to Have an Autistic Muppet

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I don’t cry during sad movies or happy ones. I often joke that I don’t have emotions. So why did I feel a lump in my throat when I recently sat down to watch Sesame Street?

When Big Bird walks over to introduce himself to Julia, a new Muppet with autism, he gets offended when she doesn’t respond right away.

Then a surprising thing happens. Without dwelling on her autism, the characters normalize the situation, explaining that she’s a kid who happens to process things a little differently.

When I was young, I used to be obsessed with making up stories. Dolls and other toys became characters in long complicated plots that would evolve over months and years on end.

It was like living in a moving bubble that created a barrier between me and everyone else. For a long time, no one else could really connect with me, even members of my family.

Once, while playing with my tiny plastic PollyPocket dolls, my mom unwittingly altered one of my storylines when she had one of the dolls stand up for herself after being bullied. I was frustrated by her intrusion upon the world I was creating. I got upset. We stopped playing. And I learned that dolls were something best played alone.

I spent the first eight or so years of my life oblivious of my autism label. My parents broke the news to me in fourth grade. And when they told me, I started crying.

I remember feeling ashamed. I wanted to distance myself from my diagnosis because I didn’t want to be any different from my peers. I felt that sharing my diagnosis would isolate me.

These days, it’s not like I walk around with a neon sign proclaiming that I have Asperger’s, but for practical reasons, I do have to talk about it. Like getting accommodations on tests at school.

Sesame Street’s Julia isn’t going to change much for me, but she does something better by helping the next generation of teachers, kids, and parents, understand what it means to live on the spectrum.

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