There's been a lot of excitement over the last days on blog,newspaper and online (sorry I don't have a TV) about the inclusion of the newest muppet to Sesame Street who is depicted as being on the Autism Spectrum - I chose my words carefully because that's not what used in reporting the story.
Whilst it is a break through that correctly an American (if not an international) cultural and educational institution is including in there cast of characters. I applaud that Jim HensonCompany have got around in pushing for a greater acceptance of Autism and Sesame Street is right place to start.
But it could have adverse effects in the representation of people who are determined by wider society of being autistic.
First the positive; it's a she not a he, whilst Autism is predominantly defined in the media as largely a male condition, Julia as the name suggests is female, who in generally if not severely autistic are under diagnosed and therefore under represented in statistics and policy debates.
Now I have to point what's troubling me, whilst it positive that a large and important producer of educational content - one that has come to define many discussions on death, eduction, race and discrimination it has like many dominant media channels come to control the definition - as many commentators has pointed Sesame Street has long denied the sexual identity of Bert and Ernie, the two muppets who live & co-habit together. In regards to representation of Autism Sesame Street is in danger of defining for a whole generation what Autism 'looks like' Julia as great as she is not the what autistic people look like or behave. As apparent by the ground breaking work of Lorna Wing and the UK's National Autistic Society people with the condition 'autism' sit on a spectrum - any number of residents on Sesame Street could be autistic as they can be gay, bisexual, black, brown, male, female or transgender.
I appreciate the work that Sesame Street has done in including a character with the traits of Autism, the media reception has been great but a single character in a PBS series should not and does not define a particular group of people. They will be I hope more characters in media representing US but we must resist any one interpretation, negative and as well as positive (Autism after all can be a excused for bad and wrong behaviour) that seeks to place us in a single box.
I really recommend CBS 60 Minutes article and videoes on the subject http://cbsn.ws/2n26647