Sesame Street Partners with Anti-vaccine Organization Autism Speaks

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Way back in 2015, I made a video about Sesame Street. I love Sesame Street. I grew up on Sesame Street, as did the vast majority of kids in the United States, especially today. When it debuted, it was only accessible in about 2/3s of households just due to who had a decent enough signal to get it on their TV, and in a study published this past February, researchers found that the children who had access to Sesame Street were 1.5 to 2 percent more likely to be learning at their appropriate grade level. It’s a small difference, perhaps, but considering that it’s a free program that is now watched by more than 95% of all pre-schoolers, it’s actually a very big benefit to society.

So the research tells us that Sesame Street is 1.) extremely popular and 2.) able to have a noticeable impact on the lives and learning of our children. We also know that this amazing, popular, impactful program is left to the whim of governmental funding (and, of course, “viewers like you”), as it airs on public television. That can be tricky territory here in the United States, which is why back in 2015 I supported Sesame Street’s decision to partner with HBO. HBO would pay them to get new episodes, which would then be released to PBS after nine months. It’s not like Sesame Street is covering breaking news, so kids would still be learning the alphabet and whatnot at the usual pace, while Sesame Street gets extra income.

I still feel like that is an okay trade. However, I wonder if there wasn’t just the slightest hint of a start to a slippery slope in that action. Because this week I learned that Sesame Street has partnered with Autism Speaks to promote that organization’s screenings. Let it be known that Autism Speaks is a despicable organization that has done so much awful shit in its short history that no one anywhere should be supporting them in the slightest. This is a huge problem.

Back in 2017, Sesame Street introduced an autistic muppet named Julia, which they used as a great opportunity to model how neurotypical children might be able to understand, interact with, and befriend an autistic child without demanding that the autistic child hide who they are.

As the Autistic Self Advocacy Network points out in their letter announcing they will no longer partner with Sesame Street, Autism Speaks is now using that character to promote the opposite of what it was designed for. Julia is promoting Autism Speaks’ “100-Day Kit” for parents of a newly diagnosed autistic child, in which parents are taught to go through the five stages of grief in order to come to terms with the diagnosis. The five stages of grief aren’t even really a psychologically valid tool for dealing with death, let alone an autism diagnosis, but regardless, should an advocacy organization be treating autism as a death sentence?

The kit also encourages parents to use an “autism diet,” which is a fun bit of pseudoscience that pretends you can fix autism by taking all the joy out of food, like gluten. There’s no evidence it works but that doesn’t stop Autism Speaks from pretending it’s real science.

That’s not the least of what’s problematic about Autism Speaks. At its founding in 2005, the organization was made up entirely of neurotypical people who focused on ending vaccination and spreading the regularly debunked myth that vaccines cause autism. After years of funding studies trying and failing to find a link between vaccines and autism, prominent members resigned in frustration and Autism Speaks stopped banging on about it so much.

There’s more you can learn on RationalWiki, like how they spread lies like “80% of parents with autistic children get divorced,” and how they once partnered with the white supremacist group Soldiers of Odin, and how they once tried to sue a 14-year old autistic girl who made a parody website called “NT Speaks” to draw attention to the fact that at the time there were no autistic people speaking for Autism Speaks. 

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network reports that they worked hard to convince Sesame Street that partnering with Autism Speaks was harmful to people with autism, but to no avail. According to ASAN, “Our contacts (at Sesame Street) 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.”

The only reason I can think of for this to happen is money. Was the HBO deal the beginning of the end for Sesame Street, an institution that has persisted for 50 years relatively untouched by the dangers of capitalism? Whatever the cause, I’m overwhelmingly sad about this all. Big Bird, Oscar, Grover, SUPER GROVER even, the muppets that I grew up with, are now complicit in creating a world that is actively harmful to kids with autism. I can’t support it and I hope more people speak out, to the point that Sesame Street wakes up and fixes this.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. From their web, just now:
    “Vaccines. Each family has a unique experience with an autism diagnosis, and for some it corresponds with the timing of their child’s vaccinations. At the same time, scientists have conducted extensive research over the last two decades to determine whether there is any link between childhood vaccinations and autism. The results of this research is clear: Vaccines do not cause autism. The American Academy of Pediatrics has compiled a comprehensive list of this research.”

    So looks like they are retreating from a strong anti-vax stand.

  2. Hi Rebecca. Long time listener, first time caller. Big fan of your work.

    TL;DR; Autism Speaks is dangerous, but Sesame Street isn’t as important as it was, and there are other shows that cover the same ground.

    I’ve gone on to the Autism Speaks website, and downloaded the 100-day plan, and yeah. It’s horrible.

    However, on the upside, I’ve got 5 year old twins, so I keep an eye out for what they watch and there are amazing kids show out there that cover the similar ground to what Sesame Street was doing. Also, this is me in NZ so I don’t know what the media situation is like in the US and how influential Sesame Street is these days.

    Just 3 examples: “The Wiggles” covers a lot of multi-cultural aspects. “Llama, Llama” I am sure is a llama on the spectrum. “Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood” covers all sorts of aspects for kids to be able to handle complex emotions and feelings like “It’s ok to feel 2 things at a time” in song form.

    In fact Daniel Tiger is so good I get lessons from it as well and there are many adults who would benefit from watching it.

    I was brought up on Sesame Street in the suburbs in Sydney, Australia in the 70’s, and you have no idea how foreign the program looked, but I still loved it, and I think I learned from it. It was a cultural icon there as well. While I would mourn the loss of Sesame Street, there is so much more available now in 2019 that wasn’t available in 1969.

    As for that “100 day plan”, that is not a good brochure and is likely to do actual harm. Bringing up kids is hard, but being a kid is hard too. 5 stages of grief!!! Why would that be about grief? Bringing up kids is a constant challenge because they change so quickly anyway. Strategies you come up with today won’t hold up tomorrow, or next week, or next month. Yeah just rude.

    Sesame Street isn’t the be all it was. There is so much out there.

    Love your podcasts and thank you. Always interesting.

  3. Actually, the main problems with “Autism Speaks” are:
    1. They actively exclude autistic people from any of the decision-making. If you go to the ASAN website, you see that their slogan is “nothing about us without us.” (Not that it’s unique to them.) It’s kind of a rebuke to “Autism Speaks.”

    2. They explicitly promote the view that people with autism are defective and not really human to the exent they are autistic. E.g., they ran a bunch of ads saying that autism “kidnaps” children and “steals” their humanity. (I remember seeing them in the NYC subway.) Their research goals are focussed entirely on eliminating autism, which many autistic people view as tantamount to wanting to exterminate them.

    3. They encourage parents of autistic children to focus on how their children are failing to be what they expected them to be and discourage them from appreciating their children as they are. (Imagine a national charity whose focus was on getting parents of girls to focus on the “tragedy” that their child is not a boy.)

    tl;dr: “Autism Speaks” is institutionalized bigotry against non-neurotypicals.

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