How these new Sesame Street and Power Rangers characters are changing Hollywood's portrayal of autism
Sesame Street will add a new friend to the neighborhood next month when it debuts Julia, the first muppet with autism.
And when the "Power Rangers" movie hit the box offices Friday, it offered a new take on some of the characters in the superhero series — including Billy, the blue ranger, who is also on the autism spectrum. (The franchise also sought to broaden the diversity of its roster through Trini, the yellow ranger questioning her sexual orientation.)
The two new fictional children's characters are garnering widespread praise from autism advocates who have long criticized Hollywood's portrayals of the disorder.
Sesame Street first created Julia as an online character in 2015 as part of a broader initiative to provide parents with educational resources on autism. She was so well-received that the television show decided to bring her to life. The first episodes with Julia will air April 10 on PBS and HBO.
"Our goal was to try to help destigmatize autism and increase awareness, understanding and empathy," said Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop's executive vice president of global social impact and philanthropy.
Power Rangers' creator Haim Saban expressed a similar goal in his decision to place Billy on the autism spectrum.
"With the feature film, we wanted to continue to reinforce core brand messages of inclusivity, diversity and empowerment," Saban said in an emailed statement to the NewsHour.
In both portrayals, writers were careful to avoid caricatures. Billy's signs of autism are at times as subtle as expressing anxiety in new situations or shouting when his peers are trying to stay quiet.
Autism awareness advocates say television has been doing a better job of portraying autism on screen. NBC's hit television show Parenthood, for example, was praised for a featuring a character who was diagnosed with Asperger's.
"Parenthood," Sesame Street and Power Rangers, though, remain rarities.
"Autism has been portrayed in the media inaccurately and in largely damaging ways," said Mark Osteen, a professor at Loyola University Maryland who teaches a course on neurodiversity in film. He is also the parent of 27-year-old son with autism.
One of the most prominent examples, he said, is "Rain Main," the 1988 movie starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, who plays his autistic older brother. Like many portrayals of people with autism in the 1980s and 90s, Hoffman's character is also a savant.
"The characters then, nearly all of them were freakish and had some amazing skill. There was very little interest in exploring the nature of autism," Osteen said.
More recent depictions have also come under scrutiny. Disability advocates criticized the TV show "Glee's" attempt at a character with autism as insensitive, and said the 2016 film "The Accountant" with Ben Affleck once again fell into the savant stereotype.
Sesame Street executives said they recognized how difficult it was to accurately depict autism because children can have varying degrees of autism and as a result often act in unique ways. That is why Sesame Street's team consulted with members of the autism community before launching Julia's character.
Julia's creators said they took certain characteristics from children in the moderate range on the autism spectrum. As a result, Julia often does not respond to her friends immediately and speaks less often than her peers. In one interaction, another muppet, Abby Cadabby, notices Julia likes to flap her arms—a common characteristic of kids with autism—and makes a game out of it, pretending they are butterflies.
"The hope is that children with autism will be able to identify with Julia and feel less alone," Westin said. "I think the biggest opportunity is to use Julia with the other characters to help explain autism."
Disability advocates say the thoughtfulness put into both the Sesame Street and Power Rangers' characters paid off.
"To show people with disabilities in the light of power, that is something extraordinary," said Charles Archer, CEO of the THRIVE NETWORK.
In the case of the Power Rangers, Archer pointed out that Billy finds his power in interacting with his fellow power rangers. Julia, who has a multitude of friends, is generally happy in contrast to other fictionalized people with autism who are often depicted as depressed or lonely.
Archer said helping children understand autism at an early age provides exciting prospects for the next generation.
"It means they are going to grow up into teens and adults understanding that if someone has social anxiety and might learn differently or work differently than you do, that doesn't mean that they cannot have productive lives," Archer said.
As a parent, Osteen called the new shows, which notably have broad appeal, "immense progress" and said he only wishes his own son, Cameron, could have grown up with similar characters.
"That would have been wonderful, not only for the other kids in school to recognize 'Oh yeah, that's like Cameron,' but also for him to be able to watch that and say, 'he's like me' or 'she's like me.'"
Osteen said that would have helped his son realize he was not alone.