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TV's still-relevant ?Sesame Street' eyes autism awareness

Observer-Reporter - 3/28/2017

OK, we'll admit to our moments of annoyance with PBS.

Some of the programs PBS stations air during fundraising periods, thick with oldies acts and self-help hucksters, can grate. But the hours taken up with these sorts of programs have thankfully been few, particularly when you consider the vast, almost half-century expanse of public television's history.It's been in the gunsights of some lawmakers for a substantial chunk of that history. They argue the government shouldn't be in the business of financing television, or that cable and satellite services now offer a profusion of television and duplicate what PBS offers ? a dubious argument ? or that PBS is infected with a "liberal bias." As Los Angeles Times television critic Robert Lloyd pointed out in 2011, PBS is "liberal in the sense that it stands for things such as scientific inquiry and equal access to ?the arts,' which by their nature are provocative ? ."Need any additional proof of the value of PBS? For Exhibit A, we would point to "Sesame Street," which is on the verge of introducing a new, special character to its cast.In April, Big Bird, Elmo and the Cookie Monster will be joined by a 4-year-old, red-headed muppet named Julia. According to the "Sesame Street" website, she is "sweet, curious and loves to play." It turns out that she also has autism. In her debut, Big Bird reportedly introduces himself, but is confused when Julia does not make eye contact or acknowledge his outstretched wing, and instead keeps on coloring. The other characters then explain to Big Bird it's not that Julia dislikes him ? she simply acts and responds to her surroundings in a different way.The addition of an autistic muppet to the constellation of "Sesame Street" characters is one way that the program has maintained its relevance, educational focus and generosity of spirit since its debut in 1969. Take, for instance, when actor Will Lee died of a heart attack in 1982. He had played beloved store owner Mr. Hooper since the program's inception. Rather than take the easy route, and have Mr. Hooper "move away," the show's creative team decided to build a story around Mr. Hooper's death and offer lessons on grieving and loss. The episode won Emmy and Peabody awards. In the years since, "Sesame Street" has also brought characters on board who have parents in jail, serving in the military, or who have same-sex parents.The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2016 that 1 in 68 school-age children have autism or disorders that are related to it. The numbers have gone up over the last couple of decades, though the jury is out on whether it is the result of people becoming parents later in their lives, greater awareness or other factors. The PBS program's acknowledgment of autism will surely help break down stigmas associated with the condition, and help young "Sesame Street" viewers who are autistic see a character who is like them, and appreciated for who they are.PBS and Big Bird have been threatened species before. The introduction of an autistic character on "Sesame Street" demonstrates why it, and its longtime television home, deserve the support of Americans and their representatives on Capitol Hill.


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