Behind A PBS Character With Autism Is Man Who Helped Shape Him
In a recent episode of the PBS KIDS series “Hero Elementary,” one of the four main characters gets separated from his backpack.
Classmates at his school for young superheroes don’t tell him it’s lost at first, worried that he’ll be devastated. That’s because the backpack is a comfort item for the character, AJ Gadgets, said show writer Christine Ferraro. Having a comfort item is common among people with autism.
The animated show, which centers on scientific exploration, debuted in June and each episode is carefully reviewed by a 27-year-old from Englewood, N.J. who is on the autism spectrum and has a passion for storytelling. Over time, the AJ Gadgets character has come increasingly to resemble him, Ferraro said.
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Having characters on children’s shows authentically portray autism helps teach acceptance from a young age, she said. The series will also show young children on the spectrum that they’re not alone, Taylor added.
“As long as you’re around people who know the real you and accept you for who you are, that’s all that matters,” he said.
The opportunity for Taylor to serve as a consultant for the show stemmed from his involvement with a Secaucus, N.J.-based company formed to help uplift people just like him. The founder paved the way for Taylor and Ferraro to first meet.
Ann Marie Sullivan founded Spectrum Works in 2013 to help young adults on the autism spectrum advance into careers. Taylor was the first student to join.
“She’s really been like his guardian angel,” said Taylor’s mother, Debbie Taylor.
He was in his first year of college when he joined Spectrum Works, which soon helped him land a job. Later, he began mentoring other participants.
He first met Ferraro at a conference that Sullivan encouraged him to attend. She knew Ferraro, a “Sesame Street” writer, would be discussing the show’s character with autism, Julia. Storytelling and cartooning are among Taylor’s biggest passions and she wanted him to see directly how PBS was “moving the needle” in media portrayals of autism. He returned from the conference with the Emmy award winner’s business card.
“We thought, let’s reach out to her and try and see if she would meet with us to give us advice,” Sullivan said.
The character of AJ was first conceptualized as a huge superhero fan, Ferraro said. The more the writers developed him, the more he started to remind Ferraro of her brother who was on the autism spectrum, she said.
She happened to meet Taylor in the early stages of the show’s development. After getting her business card at the conference, Taylor and Sullivan set up a phone call with her to discuss Taylor’s own work — an anime series he’s been creating for years.
She invited him to her house to review his work, and the more she got to know him the more she realized he could help with the show.
“We have an autism advisor who was a professor who teaches about education and autism,” Ferraro said. “We have an autism advisor who is a parent. What we didn’t have was the authentic voice of someone with autism. And then Dennis came into my life. It was just this perfect timing.”
Taylor reviewed all 80 episodes in the show’s first season. He made suggestions when AJ behaved a way that didn’t feel authentic and carefully compared his experiences to the character’s.
“If someone says, ‘It’s raining cats and dogs,’ his mind will probably think ‘It’s just raining hard, I don’t see any cats and dogs,'” Taylor said. “He has a very literal mindset like I used to have.”
Gradually, as Taylor’s mother shared stories with the writers about her son’s life and they incorporated them into the show, the character began to really resemble him, Ferraro said.
Next April, Autism Awareness Month, PBS will debut the episodes that directly address AJ’s autism. Debbie Taylor said they’re her favorite ones.
“Even talking about it now gives me goosebumps,” she said.
Taylor has continued pursuing his own projects. Recently, he’s taken an interest in feathered dinosaurs, he said. He’s writing a book about them and launching a t-shirt line.
One day, he said he might see a child wearing a shirt with AJ on it.
“I can just think to myself, ‘Wow, I helped make this. I was a part of this,'” Taylor said. “Helping to inspire the next generation is very rewarding.”
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