The Autistic Self Advocacy Network condemns Sesame Street’s decision to further stigma against autistic children and adults in their new Public Service Announcements.
For several years, ASAN consulted with Sesame Street on their See Amazing project and the development of their autistic character, Julia. Until this summer, the content Sesame Street produced showed parents that their autistic children could live great lives, and taught autistic and neurotypical children ways to become friends. Through this approach, See Amazing successfully encouraged the inclusion of autistic children in their communities, and had a widespread positive impact.
Sesame Street has now decided to undo that progress. Its latest PSAs featuring Julia promote Autism Speaks’ “Screen for Autism” initiative and their resource for parents of newly-diagnosed autistic children, the 100 Day Kit. 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. The 100 Day Kit encourages parents to blame family difficulties on their autistic child (“When you find yourself arguing with your spouse… be careful not to get mad at each other when it really is the autism that has you so upset and angry”) and to view autism as a terrible disease from which their child can “get better.” 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.
We discussed with Sesame Street, repeatedly and in great detail, what this decision would mean for the autistic community. We explained to them how these ideas harm autistic children and our families, and reinforce societal prejudice against autistic people. Our contacts acknowledged that the Autism Speaks resources were harmful and portrayed autistic children in a negative light — yet they were unwilling to reverse course in their plans to promote them. As a result, we have formally ended our partnership with Sesame Street.
Too often, parents of autistic children are bombarded with terrifying messages. They are told that their autistic child will destroy their marriage and their nondisabled children’s lives. They are told that their child’s happiness — and their own — depends on the child “getting better” by hiding their autistic traits, and to work toward this goal above all else. They are told to grieve for the hypothetical nondisabled child they had imagined, rather than to love and connect to the autistic child in front of them. These messages hurt autistic people, scare our families, and encourage our communities to fear and exclude us. Autism Speaks has played a central role in developing them.
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.
Decision-makers at Sesame Street understand the position they are in. For fifty years, Sesame Street has created content with the explicit goal of impacting the real lives of children and families. It is too late to pretend that Sesame Street can amplify harmful messages without causing harm. We call on Sesame Street to recognize the damage they are doing, end their partnership with Autism Speaks, and commit to producing and promoting only content which increases the inclusion, acceptance and well-being of autistic children.
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization run by and for autistic people. ASAN was created to serve as a national grassroots disability rights organization for the autistic community run by and for autistic Americans, advocating for systems change and ensuring that the voices of autistic people are heard in policy debates and the halls of power. Our staff work to educate communities, support self-advocacy in all its forms, and improve public perceptions of autism. ASAN’s members and supporters include autistic adults and youth, cross-disability advocates, and non-autistic family members, professionals, educators, and friends.