Published on March 31st, 2017 | from CAMH
Sesame Street: Can you tell me how to get to a better understanding of Autism?
By Dr. Yona Lunsky, Clinician Scientist in Adult Neurodevelopmental Services and Director of the Health Care Access Research and Developmental Disabilities (H-CARDD) Program
People are extremely excited about Julia, the newest Sesame Street Muppet. You see, Julia has autism.
How does a Muppet with autism make a difference? This was hotly debated at our dinner table after Julia was announced last week. My eldest asked why a Muppet needed to have autism when all Muppets are quirky and unique already. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that the point of Sesame Street?
This got me thinking. I grew up in a time before the internet; Sesame Street was a favourite weekend morning activity that I shared with my sister, who has a disability. She might have enjoyed Sesame Street with or without Julia, but I wonder what it would have meant to me, as a preschooler, to see someone like my sister on TV. To see someone like my sister interacting with other kids and grownups, who included her despite her differences. Maybe I would not have felt like I was the only person in my situation. Maybe if my friends had watched Julia on TV, they would have felt less nervous around me and had different dinner table conversations with their families after visiting my house.
Why does autism awareness and acceptance belong on a blog devoted to mental health? Because a lack of awareness and acceptance can potentially lead to very serious consequences. Time Magazine flagged that almost half of youth with Autism are made fun of or bullied in their schools. Another study spoke about “mate crime” (people being abused or manipulated by people they believe to be their friend) happening to 80% of teens and young adults on the spectrum. The cumulative impact of this can’t be under-emphasized. Overt bullying and mate crime can lead to school refusal, acting out behavior, and even suicide. Another recent study in the UK reported 2/3 of adults with Asperger syndrome had experienced suicidal thoughts in the past. In our own work, we found that 1/3 of the adults we surveyed had made a prior suicide attempt. Not fitting in can continue to be a challenge in adulthood, and is one important explanation for why many adults with autism struggle to succeed in the workplace. Perhaps by meeting characters like Julia, our adults of tomorrow will grow up in more accepting communities and have better health and social outcomes.
As Daniel Share-Strom said so wisely in his Ted talk about autism, “Dear society, thank you for your awareness, eagerly awaiting understanding and acceptance.”
As we “raise the flag” this year, let’s think about a few steps we can take to move us beyond autism awareness and into acceptance.
Autism Awareness in health care settings
Autism is not just something that gets treated within specialist mental health services at CAMH. Let’s make our hospital and our community more accommodating. We have all seen the dancing barista on Ellen. How can individuals with ASD be employed in a hospital setting like CAMH? How can we support them to take part in various mental health advocacy and family empowerment efforts, including our new Family Centre? What can they teach us about how to make our spaces more autism friendly? If there are things we don’t understand yet about autism as clinicians, educators or community members, where can we go to learn more?
Resources to better understand Autism
To understand more about autism, listen to those who can explain it firsthand. I personally hope that Julia will become a great teacher for preschoolers. Older children and adults might learn from Carly’s Café about how stressful a simple coffee experience can be:
In Autism: See the Potential, older youth and adults can learn some basics about what autism is and how to make someone with autism feel more comfortable in social interactions:
And the York University TedX series on autism provides a great opportunity to laugh and cry while learning from people on the spectrum and their families.
All of these videos were created by Toronto-based experts and advocates.
This year, for World Autism Awareness Day, let’s move from awareness to acceptance. Each of us can spare 10 to 15 minutes to watch, read and learn about what autism means by those who know best, and about how we can make our neighbourhoods a little more like the Sunny Days of Sesame Street.