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.