Welcome to April also known as Autism Acceptance Month. The United Nations officially designated April 2 as “World Autism Awareness Day,” but the real goal is autism acceptance. Being aware or understanding to individuals that are diagnosed with autism, is just part of the solution. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a disease that is diagnosed for individuals with a variable developmental disorder that appears by age three and is characterized by impairment of the ability to form normal social relationships. Autistic individuals need to be able to assimilate into communities, are well equipped with life skills and ensured that they are able to qualify for gainful employment enabling them to be self-sustaining.
In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) significantly revised the estimated prevalence of autism in the United States; the new number – 1 in 88 children. This represents a 23 percent increase from the CDC’s previous estimate (1 in 110 children), reported in 2009. Consistent with previous estimates, the updated numbers remained heavily skewed toward boys. The researchers also found evidence of a persistent but narrowing gap between white and minority children. These findings may reflect differences in community screening and services – rather than true differences in prevalence. Autism rates among African-Americans are similar to rates among whites, but African-American children are often diagnosed with autism at an older age, missing potential years of treatment.
“The CDC’s new estimates of autism prevalence demand that we recognize autism as a public health emergency warranting immediate attention…it is a crisis of epidemic proportions – and not just among children.” – Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer
Autism awareness advocates say that in the past the disorder “has been portrayed in the media inaccurately and in largely damaging ways,” however, television has been doing a better job of portraying autism on screen. Notably, Sesame Street will add a new friend to the neighborhood this month when it debuts Julia, a green-eyed, orange-haired character with autism. The debut of its new character was part of an initiative designed to reduce the stigma surrounding autism as early as 2015. Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop’s executive vice president of global social impact and philanthropy, said “Our goal was to try to help destigmatize autism and increase awareness, understanding and empathy.” The initiative, “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in all Children,” provides educational tools in online and printed story books and as a free downloadable app that feature Sesame Street characters explaining to children how to interact with friends, like Julia, who have the neurodevelopmental disorder. The first episodes with Julia will air April 10 on PBS and HBO.
Our goal was to try to help destigmatize autism and increase awareness, understanding and empathy….continue to reinforce core brand messages of inclusivity, diversity and empowerment.
Sesame Street executives said they recognized how difficult it was to accurately depict autism because children can have varying degrees of autism and as a result often act in unique ways. That is why Sesame Street’s team consulted with members of the autism community before launching Julia’s character. Julia’s creators said they took certain characteristics from children in the moderate range on the autism spectrum. As a result, Julia often does not respond to her friends immediately and speaks less often than her peers. In one interaction, another muppet, notices Julia likes to flap her arms—a common characteristic of kids with autism—and makes a game out of it, pretending they are butterflies. “The hope is that children with autism will be able to identify with Julia and feel less alone,” Westin said. “I think the biggest opportunity is to use Julia with the other characters to help explain autism.”
The “Power Rangers” movie also offers a new take on some of the characters in the superhero series — including Billy, the blue ranger, who is also on the autism spectrum. Power Rangers’ creator Haim Saban expressed a similar goal in his decision to place Billy on the autism spectrum. In both portrayals, writers were careful to avoid caricatures. Billy’s signs of autism are at times as subtle as expressing anxiety in new situations or shouting when his peers are trying to stay quiet. “With the feature film, we wanted to continue to reinforce core brand messages of inclusivity, diversity and empowerment,” Saban said in an emailed statement.
To show people with disabilities in the light of power, that is something extraordinary…if someone has social anxiety and might learn differently or work differently than you do, that doesn’t mean that they cannot have productive lives.
Disability advocates say the thoughtfulness put into both the Sesame Street and Power Rangers’ characters paid off. In the case of the Power Rangers, Archer pointed out that Billy finds his power in interacting with his fellow power rangers. Julia, who has a multitude of friends, is generally happy in contrast to other fictionalized people with autism who are often depicted as depressed or lonely.
“To show people with disabilities in the light of power, that is something extraordinary,” said Charles Archer, CEO of the THRIVE NETWORK. Archer said helping children understand autism at an early age provides exciting prospects for the next generation. “It means they are going to grow up into teens and adults understanding that if someone has social anxiety and might learn differently or work differently than you do, that doesn’t mean that they cannot have productive lives,” Archer said.
The new shows, which notably have broad appeal, display “immense progress” and goes a step further in setting an example on how to create inclusive and welcoming environments for our friends that may be affected by symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder. So the question to consider this month are not whether you’ve worn the signature blue color, or posted on your social media accounts to show-and-prove awareness, but rather:
Have you admitted autistic people into your group–your school, your workplace, your home, your social circles, your ways of understanding?
If not, you haven’t conquered the acceptance step yet. Conquering that step means taking autistic people as they are, learning from them, and listening to them. That takes work. We need good, useful research, and educational, healthcare, family and workplace protections more than ever, to support the autistic community against stigmas and discrimination.