A Prominent Autism Group Has Cut Ties With 'Sesame Street' Over New PSAs Featuring Autistic Muppet

Julia, the first new muppet in 10 years to appear on Sesame Street, was originally praised for the character's portrayal of autism. However, the organization that helped create her has cut ties with the program over new public service announcements (commonly called PSAs), which the group says stigmatize people with autism.

Julia's first appearance on Sesame Street was in April 2017. The character was created two years earlier as part of a new initiative by Sesame Workshop, the company that produces Sesame Street, to increase awareness of autism. Julia was developed with the autism empowerment organization, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN).

However, after two new PSAs, the group cut ties with Sesame Street. The new PSAs were made with the group Autism Speaks to promote the "Screen for Autism" initiative. In one of the PSAs, Julia uses a "talker" device to tell her father she wants to play with her dog. In another, Julia forms a band with Elmo and her brother Sam after she dons noise-reducing headphones.

The PSAs, which, according to Fast Company, were created pro bono by the BBDO advertising agency, have faced criticism—not for the message, which encourages parents to screen children early for autism, but the supplementary material provided by Autism Speaks.

"Like much of Autism Speaks' recent advertising, these PSAs use the language of acceptance and understanding to push resources that further stigma and treat autistic people as burdens on our families," ASAN said in a statement.

julia autistic muppet
Julia, a Sesame Street character meant to represent a child with autism, is shown here at the 2018 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Julia is the star of new PSAs which some say stigmatize those with autism. Noam Galai/Getty

ASAN says the material provided by Autism Speaks "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 organization added that when it made its stance on the material known to Sesame Workshop, the production company agreed, but refused to change the PSAs.

"We said that our scope is not really in support of an individual resource or an individual organization. And that we were collaborating with Autism Speaks and the Ad Council for the messaging and the purpose of the campaign, which was in early screening and early diagnosis," Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop's senior vice president for social impact told Fast Company.

"We're always looking at that bigger perspective. We truly value all our partners, including ASAN, and are disappointed, but we understand [ASAN's] perspective, and we respect it."

Autism Speaks is controversial in the autistic community for its approach to autism and the language the group uses. When Autism Speaks was founded in 2005, the group said it aimed to "cure" autism, which many people with autism say is stigmatizing.

Though the reference to "curing" autism was deleted from promotional materials in 2016, ASAN says Autism Speaks' attitude hasn't changed. To illustrate its point, ASAN cites a part of the "100 Day Kit," part of the "Screen for Autism" materials, that tells parents to grieve for a child newly diagnosed with autism as if the child had died, "rather than to love and connect to the autistic child in front of them."

In a statement to Newsweek, Lisa Goring, the strategic initiatives and innovation officer at Autism Speaks, objected to ASAN's characterization of their work.

"Through our partnership with the Ad Council and the most recent public service campaign featuring Sesame Street's Julia, we aim to empower parents with tools to help their children lead their best possible lives. Since the campaign launched on April 2nd, 200,000 parents and caregivers have accessed an online screening questionnaire that may be the first step toward the brightest future for their children," she said.

This article has been updated to include a response from Autism Speaks.