'Sesame Street' Under Fire For PSAs About Autism That Add 'Further Stigma'

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network cut ties with the children's show over public service ads the nonprofit says are harmful.

An advocacy group has ended its partnership with “Sesame Street” after it ran new public service announcements featuring Julia, the show’s first autistic character.

On Monday, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network announced its decision to cut ties with the educational show, adding that it “condemns” “Sesame Street’s” decision to further stigmatize autistic children and adults. That’s because the PSAs direct parents to resources from Autism Speaks, a controversial nonprofit that autistic people have criticized for years over its messaging.

ASAN worked in collaboration with the iconic children’s program to help create the Muppet character Julia, saying that, before the series of PSAs, “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.”

The PSAs (above and below) were created pro bono by the advertising agency network BBDO, according to Fast Company, and seem pretty harmless at first glance.

Yet both — which were also created in partnership with the Ad Council — include a message at the end that encourages parents to check out Autism Speaks’ “Screen for Autism” initiative, which ASAN said uses “the language of acceptance and understanding to push resources that further stigma and treat autistic people as burdens on our families.”

Autism Speaks’ initiative includes a resource called the 100 Day Kit for parents of newly diagnosed autistic children. According to ASAN, the kit encourages parents to blame family stress on their autistic child, spend time with their non-autistic children remembering how things were better before their sibling’s diagnosis and to go through the five stages of grief after learning that their child is autistic, “as they would if the child had died.”

ASAN says the kit also paints autism as an “awful disease” and tells parents numerous times that the family’s happiness depends on the autistic child “getting better” by “hiding their autistic traits.”

Zoe Gross, director of operations at ASAN, told HuffPost that the mentality that autistic people need to “get better” by learning to appear neurotypical is outdated and harmful.

“In reality, autism is a lifelong developmental disability — autistic people will be autistic our whole lives,” Gross said. “Telling parents that they must ‘fight autism’ only makes it harder for them to accept their children as they are. Telling families that our happiness depends on being or appearing non-autistic is not helpful.”

Gross added that one of the best supports for autistic children who have speech delays, oral-motor issues or communication obstacles is alternative and augmentative communication (AAC).

“This can include text-to-speech programs or symbol-supported communication systems that allow children to express their thoughts and feelings,” she said. “It’s telling that the 100 Days Kit doesn’t include information about AAC — instead, it focuses on educating parents about behavioral therapies meant to make autistic children appear non-autistic.”

Lisa Goring, Autism Speaks’ strategic initiatives and innovation officer, said in a statement to HuffPost that Autism Speaks recognizes “autism is a diverse spectrum, and the autism community encompasses many different points of view.”

She added that response to its campaign with “Sesame Street” has been “overwhelmingly positive” and that it is “committed to doing the most good for the most people.”

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind the show, said in a statement to HuffPost that its initiative was developed in collaboration with more than 250 organizations and experts across the autism community “to ensure that our resources meet the needs of families and promote acceptance and inclusion.”

It also said that Autism Speaks’ “Screen for Autism” initiative has its benefits.

“This campaign enables us to reach more families than ever — particularly those in communities where the average age of diagnosis is much higher — and help them understand the possibilities that an autism diagnosis can bring.”

Yet ASAN stands by its belief that it’s doing more harm than good.

“At ASAN, parents of newly diagnosed children often contact us with questions like, ‘Does my child love me?’ ‘Is there a future for my child?’ ‘Can my child learn?’” she told HuffPost. “Because there is so much fear and misinformation out there, these are things that parents need to be reassured about as soon as they get the diagnosis — but most resources leave parents feeling like their autistic child, and their family, is broken.”

This post has been updated to include comment from Autism Speaks.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post stated that the 100 Day Kit had to be purchased. The kit is available for free via download, and a hard-copy version is free for people who meet certain requirements.

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