Diversity in TV, Theatre, and Books — Thinking about Autism

When people think of diversity and of diverse characters in books, television, or movies, they often only think in terms of skin color or religious views. But there are many aspects to diversity. Ensuring that there are characters, both kids and adults, who deal with physical, mental, or emotional challenges is an important part of creating a true picture of the diversity in all communities and groups.

You may have heard that there’s a new character on Sesame Street, a girl named Julia. Julia has autism. I applaud the creators of Sesame Street for not only deciding to include this character, but also for doing their research, and talking to experts, and making sure that their portrayal was sensitive and true to life.

There was an excellent feature on “60 Minutes” on Sunday, March 19, about the new character, and all the care that went into her portrayal. You can find the video of that feature on the “60 Minutes” website, here.

More and more kids are being diagnosed as having autism – “being on the spectrum,” for it is, indeed, a long spectrum of different people and different ways of being. It’s hard for adults to understand the spectrum, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s not easy for kids to understand, either – at least at first. Here’s a great blog post with suggestions of how to explain both to kids who don’t have autism, and to those who do.

Many theatres now offer autism-friendly performances of some of their productions. These are also called “sensory friendly.” This includes Broadway shows as well as plays or musicals in smaller places.

The Autism Theatre Initiative of the Theatre Development Fund started autism-friendly shows on Broadway with The Lion King in 2011, and many shows have been adapted and have offered special performances since. You can learn more about them here.

The Chicago Children’s Theatre, the Carousel Theatre in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Stages Theatre in Hopkins, Minnesota, are just three of the many theatres that now offer autism-friendly/sensory-friendly/relaxed theatre performances. The name may differ but the intent is the same.

If you’d like to read a great novel about a kid with autism, I’d highly recommend the one I’m reading right now – The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla. It’s about a boy named Charlie, who has autism, and has to cope with an angsty teenage sister, two brothers who are twins (and who can be brats), and a dad who has had a brain injury and has had to go across the country to a special hospital. Life gets very complicated for Charlie as he navigates through all this, and what keeps him grounded is his interest in birds. He and his dad had developed a list of birds they want to see some day (including two that are, technically, extinct). On a wild trip with his family all the way across the country to go to see their dad, Charlie keeps on the lookout for their someday birds. Maybe if he can tell Dad that he’s seen them, it will help Dad get well again.

There is a wonderful interview/post with the author on Mr. Schu’s excellent kidlit website. In it, Sally J. Pla explains that she wanted to write a book that included autism, but didn’t focus on it – that it would instead be about Charlie, and his autism would just be something the family dealt with. I’d also urge you to read her letter to her readers on her website.

In the same way, the creators of Julia for Sesame Street hope that she will come to be viewed not so much as “Julia, the character with autism” but as “Julia.”

And that’s what happens when we get to know someone, whatever their challenge or difference might be. They become defined not by the difference, but by their personality, their humanity, their being. And that is when we truly begin to live out diversity.

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