Why An Autism Group Is Breaking Up With ‘Sesame Street’
Public service announcements featuring Julia from “Sesame Street” that encourage early screening for autism seem innocent enough, but a self-advocacy group says the advertisements lead unsuspecting parents to harmful information.
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network says it is ending a years-long partnership with “Sesame Street” over a series of new PSAs the children’s program has done with Autism Speaks.
Print and digital advertisements using Julia — a muppet who’s on the spectrum — to educate people about autism and urge early screening debuted in April. Video spots produced as part of the collaboration between Autism Speaks, Sesame Workshop and the Ad Council were released in July.
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While the self-advocacy group is not taking issue with the ads themselves, they say that the materials people are directed to from the ads are problematic. The PSAs point people to a special Autism Speaks website to access a screening questionnaire and other resources. That website highlights Autism Speaks’ 100 Day Kit, a guide for families of newly-diagnosed children, which the Autistic Self Advocacy Network says contains a stigmatizing view of life with a child on the spectrum.
“The 100 Day Kit encourages parents to blame family difficulties on their autistic child … and to view autism as a terrible disease from which their child can ‘get better,'” the Autistic Self Advocacy Network said in a statement. “It recommends compliance-based ‘therapies’ and pseudoscientific ‘autism diets,’ but fails to educate families about communication supports. It even instructs parents to go through the five stages of grief after learning that their child is autistic, as they would if the child had died.”
Associating the character of Julia with the “harmful” ideas expressed in the 100 Day Kit taints the inclusive and positive portrayal central to Sesame Workshop’s autism initiative known as “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children,” the Autistic Self Advocacy Network said.
“Too often, parents of autistic children are bombarded with terrifying messages,” the self-advocacy group indicated. “The See Amazing initiative was groundbreaking because it offered an alternative to these stories. It let families know that their autistic children are amazing, can live happy lives and are deserving of love. Now, ‘Sesame Street’ has decided to let See Amazing become just another vehicle for Autism Speaks to spread the same old toxic ideas.”
Sesame Workshop, which produces “Sesame Street,” said that it worked with nearly 250 organizations and experts on its autism efforts in order to create resources that are well received by families and promote acceptance and inclusion. The nonprofit did not address questions about Autism Speaks’ 100 Day Kit, but said it chose to partake in the PSA campaign because of its broad reach.
“This campaign enables us to reach more families than ever — particularly those in communities where the average age of diagnosis is much higher — and help them understand the possibilities that an autism diagnosis can bring,” Sesame Workshop said in a statement.
Since Autism Speaks launched the PSA campaign featuring Julia in April, the nonprofit said it has received “overwhelmingly positive” feedback and 200,000 people have used its online screening questionnaire so far.
Lisa Goring, strategic initiatives and innovation officer at Autism Speaks, said that the 100 Day Kit and all of the group’s resources are developed in conjunction with autism experts including people on the spectrum.
“We consistently receive data and feedback from our constituents and update our tool kits accordingly,” Goring said. “We recognize that autism is a diverse spectrum, and the autism community encompasses many different points of view. We are committed to doing the most good for the most people.”