Recently, the Autism Self Advocacy Network has ended its partnership with Sesame Street, a well known children’s educational franchise that recently, up to this point, was supposed to put out positive and inclusive messages about autistic children and their families. However, Julia, the muppet with autism, got a change of narrative due to the toxicity of Autism Speaks and its philosophy. Let me tell you, I may not be autistic, but this is also highly offensive narration toward those with physical and emotional disabilities. Julia’s family should be seen as positive for her sake, but Sesame Street’s ill fated partnership with Autism Speaks has spoken volumes about how parents feel about autistic children and their lives.
Let me use an example, my friend Clayton’s daughter is autistic, and her parents are divorced of course. What bothers me most is the lack of positive and inclusive media out there that the daughter can get a hold of that speaks the truth: that autism is not an inability but yet it is a difference, and kids should respect that difference. Little Vivian will grow up being bullied in school, kicked out of schools repeatedly, and if she fails at social conformities, forced to be a ward of her mother, guardianized and put under more threat of abuse and harm. This is all because we fail as a society to include Vivian in our narrative. While Vivian is a real person, and Julia is a muppet, there should really be no difference in how each is treated. Here’s a few remedies that might help Vivian through this negative change of narrative in the media.
- First and foremost, Vivian must be exposed to books that speak in a positive and inclusive language about things like disabilities, interracial marriage, and other things she might run into. Disabled females in the literature I want to see must be the lead characters, do incredible things, and face off against the toxic narrative of negativity, exclusivity and ableism. Books are a vehicle to life itself, and I didn’t discover any blind female leads until I met Susan Oldknow, a young woman in the Treasure of Green Knowe book which is written long ago by an author few have heard of, L. M. Boston. Though the actual protagonist is a boy, the majority of the story takes place while his grandmother is speaking the narrative, and Susan grew up before the invention of Braille. You can read more about her story in the essay, A Choice of Virtues by Deborah Kent Stein. I think it’s just under Kent though, but this essay was helpful, and I delved into the Green Knowe book and found Susan’s story to be what, oddly enough, kids need to hear and see. I wish I’d read this as a child. Mary Ingalls, by the way, was written in as blind because I have this theory Laura was jealous. Very jealous of Mary, I thought, and it showed in the Little House in the Big Woods. But what Vivian and other children must read is something akin to Susan Oldknow’s story and her adventures. There are far too few of these, so if any disabled authors or any good authors write a book, I’d suggest collaborating with real disabled people with experience in being this way to get the job done. Females with disabilities being at most risk should be portrayed in the literature as the most capable and competent people, in any case more than the opposing parties who see her as helpless and delicate.
- The next thing this little girl will see is movies. I have yet to see Holywood portray blind people as themselves, and Vivian’s dad, my friend Clayton, wanted to audition for a competent blind man role in the series In the Dark. I bet many blind men would audition for this role, but what about a blind female to replace the disaster they cast as the protagonist? Please, as the Federation puts it, let us play us. Autistic children and women should also be portrayed in movies and video consumer media such as games in a way that puts them in a positive light. Little Vivian doesn’t need to necessarily watch Sesame Workshop’s content since they switched the narrative. However, she does need consumer content that impresses upon her that it’s okay to be you, it’s okay to be different, and you will not worry about getting hurt because the world has your back. Autism Speaks doesn’t speak that way toward people, and that is negative to begin with as well as dangerous. If Vivian grows up to be a model or a fashion designer at 22, good on her. However, at the peak of her fertile period, age 15 and at the oldest age 25, she could be exploited or raped by an older man. This is not saying it will or won’t happen, but I have seen it all myself, many girls with neural differences or disabilities face a greater risk of sexual exploitation. What we need to do is give this little child a chance to see the positives, and be able to face off villains and monsters in her world. And what are the villains and monsters? It all boils down to a few things: sexual predators in and out of school, her teachers included. She could also face bad employers, horrific family, friends who turn on her, and many more things she’ll have to face. These people need to consume the same media so they can be neutralized, and fast, so that this girl doesn’t have to worry about living in a 13th story run down shack with no hope of buying a home. Her dad wants to leave an estate, but I think he should be the author of some books, but as he says to me, I have no time for writing such things. However, a children’s book about the autism this child faces is a start, but if Mom isn’t in the room, or she wants a good film to watch, why not provide such a thing? When she becomes a teenager, she’ll need to see good portrayals of autistics in the consumer media like books, movies, and so on.
- School assignments cannot contain toxic and negative rhetoric toward disabled people. All public school should be required to take a disability studies course that goes through high school. Perhaps the teachers should start first, however. If I was going to be a schoolteacher, the first thing I’d do is take such a course, covering the history of disabled United States, the history of blind people, legislation that affects policymaking, and so much more. This will help my future students cope with disabled students in their classes. If by chance I had a child with autism in my class, I’d have to use the two examples of books and film that positively includes autistics, and moreover, I’d use friends’ accounts of being high or low level autistics, whatever. I don’t like functioning labels because they had a deadly past, so let’s stay away from that. Autistics or whatever, they’re all the same to me.
- If the children and adults in an autistic’s life present themselves to be negative due to consumer media, toxic feelings, and other problems, there must be a shelter that can help with the girls, and yes, a separate place for boys. However, since girls are at greater risk of being murdered by their families, sexually exploited or raped, or otherwise mistreated, there must be more resources available to them. As a schoolteacher, you should be able to tell your student at risk where to go for help, give them the names of therapists, and have a parent conference with the parents and student if necessary.
Here’s the way a typical parent conference should go, should things get toxic.
Teacher. Hello, parents, I’d called this meeting because your student expressed concern about abuse, and from what student said, (insert name of relative/other party) raped/abused/beat her. I’d like to explain what resources are out there to help your child should this continue. For one, I want to initiate a call to the appropriate law enforcement and for another, I want to encourage you and your child to have a better relationship, free of abuse and toxic things, or else I as the teacher will have to call Child Protective Services on you guys for failing to protect your student child. (pause for parental response. Second part follows.)
Teacher. I want to ask you a few questions. First, what do you blame for the problems in your home? I want to see if the child’s disability is too much. If so, have you consulted appropriate educational material in my classroom? (pause for response. Next few questions follows.)
What have you done to protect your child student from harm or this person’s action? What other disabilities do you think are a problem, but furthermore, do you or your family want to pursue family counseling?
Something similar to this script should be done in cases where the child is bullied, abused, or in some cases, in a very hard foster situation. As a disabled woman whose parents blamed me for everything, I know what works and does not work. Below is a few suggestions for therapists, some I’ve written before, but this is a model that all therapists should do. This comes from the pen or the keyboard per se of a disabled patient herself. What I’m writing here is nothing short of an opinion, but it is an objective opinion based on experience.
- Do not allow a family to openly blame a child’s disability on their problems.
- Do not demand that the child conform to the system, but rather, allow the system to help the child and cater to that child’s needs.
- In cases of incest or rape of a female patient, do what you normally would do with trauma victims, but with developmentally disabled females, break it down as always. Depending on the child’s or adult’s age of understanding things, talk to this person about sex and sexual matters. The family system may not be set up for this talk of sorts, so get the parents in the room while you talk to your patient. Next, ask the parents whether they are aware that this person or your patient/client knows any such thing about sex or sexual matters.
- Address boundary setting. Parents should know that all children have some degree of a boundary. When a grandmother kisses her grandson on the lips or cheek, he may reject this. He may then suggest, “Grandma, why not just hug me or shake my hand?” The same goes for Uncle Pete and his niece, or any two people where one is an adult and the other a child. This will help the client, likely a teen patient or young child, survive sexual abuse or unwanted touching. Boundaries aren’t the only thing.
- Encourage your client/patients to do self defense and empowerment classes so that they can learn how to defend themselves from possible injury or attack. You’d be surprised what these ladies and gents can learn about self defense.
- For male and female or even pansexual patients with LGBTQIA+ leanings or affiliation, please refrain from doing conversion therapy by order of the parent or guardian. This is now illegal in the state of Colorado and so many other places, so read up on your state’s laws regarding this practice. No matter which state, however, do not perform the practice because this will in the long run hurt someone deeply.
- For blind and visually impaired parents and clients alike, make sure your material is in Braille or electronic format on a small handheld thumb drive. I understand about confidentiality, but using secure apps like Denver Health’s MyChart, which include questionnaires, can be helpful to therapists with blind clients or guardians who are blind as well.
- For nonverbal clients, know your ASL. If you really want to work with disabled kids, learn ASL or a country’s sign language. If you aren’t able to do that, or if you’re a blind therapist, use a Deaf Blind Communicator from HumanWare to talk to nonverbal clients. You will be shocked what they say, and surprised by the tools they might use. IF you’re not Braille literate, now’s the time to invest in your Braille skills, of course.
While some people might find some of these guide hints hard to do, I think it’s very important that the system does not make it so that the child fails. In just about every case, the system failed the community of disabled children and their parents, and we have media, TV, books, and negative messages in therapy to blame for all this. Clayton’s daughter will need to receive the best possible shot from a system that cares, which includes good literature on her differences, good consumer media that shows herself in a positive circumstance, and a good healthcare system of doctors, professionals, teachers included in this one, therapists and social work professionals. When she becomes an adult, I hope Vivian has a huge shot at doing things her way, which might include being a veterinarian, or maybe even a secretary, a doctor, or anything she wants to be. She could study the brain, study fish, whatever she wants. Maybe she’s a huge science nerd, and one day might study what lives around and within us. She could find a cure for what ails us, and this little girl could be the next Nobel laureate in anything from literature to medicine to music, and who knows? Her work could change the world, but we must begin with a system that cares. What does that look like? Just try the suggestions above, read good books, write good ones too. Collaborate with positive authors and actors to create the consumer media we now must create in order to reverse the toxic ableist narrative that currently pervades our world.
I’d like to thank all my friends with disabilities, my therapy user friends, and others for contributing valuable information to this report. Autism Self Advocacy network will always be number one in understanding, and above all accepting autism. Sesame Workshop needs to change the narrative, go back to what they were doing, and give autistic kids the positive family narrative they deserve.