'Sesame Street' wins with Julia

"Sesame Street" has done it again — helping children understand people and experiences that may be confusing or unfamiliar to them. Through Julia, a new Muppet with autism who joins the cast in April, children will learn that peers who act differently can still be a fun friend.

Creating such awareness is key to what each of us longs for — acceptance and an appreciation of our gifts and uniqueness. We all owe a debt of gratitude to "Sesame Street" for helping future generations — and their parents and grandparents — learn this valuable lesson.

New Muppet Julia provides an opportunity to embrace friendship, while learning that all people are different and some use diverse ways to communicate. This is a highly beneficial experience for a child with autism: to find support rather than negative reactions in his or her community when a trigger affects his or her behavior. Through Julia, “Sesame Street” is engaging with a reality of our daily lives by modeling effective approaches of both how to communicate with those living with autism and how to embrace them for who they are.

As a parent of a child with autism, I was looking for these TV shows as my son was growing. I longed for his community to better be able to understand that no matter a child’s condition, he or she still wants to have friends. It is heartening that future generations will benefit from Julia and the new vision of people with autism that she will foster.

As the puppeteer who plays Julia, herself a mother of a son with autism, explained on CBS’ “60 Minutes” episode introducing Julia, “It means that our kids are important enough to be seen in society. Having Julia on the show and seeing all of the characters treat her with compassion ... it’s huge.” 

“Sesame Street” writer Christine Ferraro further explained that “it was a very easy way to show that with a very slight accommodation they can meet her where she is.”

These lessons are key as well for families and individuals with disabilities as they seek to live out their faith in Catholic environments throughout the United States. As children and adults with autism and other disabilities are being welcomed into faith formation, sacramental preparation programs, Catholic schools and parish ministries, they are forming friendships and experiencing a sense of belonging as members of the body of Christ. Regrettably, this ideal is not currently the reality in every parish, but it is the goal toward which many are striving. 

Increasingly, those involved in pastoral outreach to individuals with disabilities and their families are coming to understand and appreciate the distinction between a model of inclusion and that of belonging. Inclusion implies that a person is “let in” and allows those in power to exclude for any number of reasons, including budget or lack of resources. But approaching parish life from an understanding that each person belongs by virtue of their baptism, individuals are seen as valuable members rather than “problems to be solved.” Additionally, this evolving paradigm of disability ministry focuses on building relationships and fostering meaningful participation rather than creating programs that may unintentionally isolate the person.

The Board of Directors of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) approved in November 2016 a brief statement prepared by its Council on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) that captures this shift:

“The Church acknowledges that all persons belong by virtue of their baptism and that disability is an ordinary part of life. From this follows the responsibility of each parish to acknowledge the inherent dignity of each person and to provide access and full integration to individuals with disabilities. Therefore, each parish is called to provide access into all aspects of the communal life of the Church, engaging in relationship and offering appropriate supports. Thus, each person is empowered to achieve the fullest measure of personal participation, belonging, serving and flourishing as part of the body of Christ.” 

The bottom line for all of us, as demonstrated by Julia and her “Sesame Street” pals, is to not focus on our differences as human beings. Rather, we are called to gain an understanding of the uniqueness of each individual, and then we are challenged to seek to build a relationship with that individual. As noted by Ferraro during the “60 Minutes” interview, “I would love (Julia) to be not ‘Julia, the kid on “Sesame Street”’ who has autism. I would like her to be just Julia.”

Janice Benton is the executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) in Washington, D.C. Esther Garcia is the NCPD manager of programs and outreach and the proud mother of a son with autism.