Appreciating Autism with Julia

Appreciating Autism with Julia

Julia, the new Muppet with autism autistic on Sesame Street autism awareness appreciation

Sesame Street in October 2015 introduced Julia, a Muppet with autism in one of their storybooks. On Monday, April 10, Julia mad her screen debut!

 

Sunny days have become sunnier at Sesame Street with a new kid on the block, a vivacious girl with bright red hair and large, expressive green eyes. Meet Julia. And she happens to have autism. Announced October 2015Julia made her debut on the beloved children’s show Monday, April 10, as part of Autism Awareness Month. In a video to introduce the character, Julia’s friend Abby Cadabby explains, “lots of kids have autism.” And “that means their brains just work a little differently,” she continues.  As the Amazing Song proclaims, this effort by Sesame Street is to promote not just autism awareness, but autism acceptance and appreciation.

(CBS News made the announcement on Sunday, April 2; the following day, Julia was introduced in Congress.  Incidentally, Power Rangers introduced Billy, a blue character with autism.)

 

A Basis on Research and Experience

Noteworthy is that the people who create and enact the show themselves have experience with autism. Frank Campagna, the writer of the respected blog “Autism Daddy” is one of the video producers at Children’s Television Workshop. In his blog, he discusses how, after the birth of his severely autistic son, he sought to bring awareness and acceptance of the condition on the show.  And bringing Julia to life is puppeteer Stacey Gordon, an advocate and a parent of a boy with autism.

A researcher at Virginia Tech, herself a mom of a boy with autism, praises the way Julia doesn’t just talk about autism, but shows her young audience how autism is another way of thinking and being, providing the tools for them to interact with their autistic peers.

 

Resources for Parents

“Sesame Street and Autism” offers a variety of resources for parents, including the following:  Storybook image of Julia, a Sesame Street Muppet with autism

 

Sunny Day
Sweepin’ the clouds away
On my way to where the air is sweet

Can you tell me how to get,
How to get to Sesame Street

Come and play
Everything’s A-OK
Friendly neighbors there
That’s where we meet….

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Revisited: What Do We Tell the Children – and Immigrants (as Well as Refugees)

Playful boy in the expansive courtyard of the Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, Syria

Photo by James Gordon, Los Angeles, California, USA: “Playful boy in the expansive courtyard of the Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, Syria” Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. This mosque, the fourth holiest place in Islam, is now in ruins.

It’s time to revisit two themes: “What do we tell the children?” and “What do we teach the children?”  In other words, v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha, “Love your neighbor (or stranger) as yourself.”
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On Saturday, January 27, Trump issued his now-famous executive order banning residents of seven designated predominantly Muslim nations from entering the United States. Noteworthy is the fact that the order contains the phrase “foreign terrorist” but not “refugees.” Among these foreign terrorists detained was a four-month-old infant in need of open-heart surgery, and a one-year-old with cancer. In fact, world wide, children, already among the most vulnerable, are suffering in disproportionate numbers.
What do we mean by “extreme vetting”? A Homeland Security official explains that refugees have been been vetted thoroughly all along.

Teaching and Supporting the Children

Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, offers a comprehensive guide for educators and school support staff in dealing with the many complex issues of immigrants and refugees. Says the report,
“Schools should be safe havens that embrace all students and families, regardless of citizenship and national origin, and that includes unaccompanied and refugee children. The 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe ruled that undocumented children have a constitutional right to receive a free public K–12 education, which provides the means to becoming a “self-reliant and self-sufficient participant in society,” the court wrote, and instills the “fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic political system.” However, today’s increased enforcement measures by the Department of Homeland Security and campaign promises made by the incoming administration threaten that right for thousands of undocumented youth and the 4.1 million U.S.-born children who live in mixed-status households with at least one parent or family member who is undocumented.”
The report offers facts about undocumented students, immigration raids, what school communities can do, and taking action beyond the classroom.
A companion piece, “What Do I Say to Students about Immigration Orders?” offers clear, honest tips for helping undocumented students and children of undocumented parents. This thoughtful essay offers ten additional steps of constructive action teachers and other adult role models can take.

Out Beyond the School

 On Wednesday, February 1, Trump cut a call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull short, refusing to honor America’s earlier pledge to take in 1,200 refugees. These are the refugees who had been relocated to the Papua New Guinea island of Nauru. The refugees consist mainly of families, many children among them. Witnesses – both the children themselves and the human rights group Amnesty International – describe the conditions there as inhumane.
Meanwhile, Samantha Bee had to put aside her humor in her scathing segment that night. Then, again, so was Trevor Noah, using the same c-bomb.

Forces of Good(ness) in the Twitterverse

 Bana Alabed, thankfully safe, had a poignant question for the president, seeking his empathy. Bana is the brave little Syrian girl who has been using Twitter to alert the world of the plight of these children, now political pawns subject to the political whims of egomaniac adults.
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The video can be found here. Please follow her! Bana’s mother, Fatemah, has also set up a Twitter account. Mother and daughter preach love, peace, and understanding. These are the message we need so much more of.

After the Super Bowl

Here’s the full, uncut version of the famous advertisement by 84 Lumber. It’s beautiful!

From Light to Darkness to Light: A Time for Hope

By sheer coincidence, the Torah portion (parsha) reading for Shabbat following the inauguration is Shemot, the first five chapters of the book of Exodus. Anyone who has taken part in a Passover Seder will be familiar with much of the meaning of Exodus. The story is one of darkness, followed by redemption and light, ending on a note of faith in great things to come.

 

Turning Curses into Blessings

In the aftermath of what must be the most depressing and nasty election campaigns in U.S. history, capped by a very dark inaugural address, the story of Exodus gives hope. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in December 2015 wrote an inspirational commentary on this very parsha, “Turning Curses into Blessings.” He remarks on how the book of Genesis ends on “almost a serene note.” Then there was a new Pharaoh, who set into motion oppression against the people of Israel. Then, continues Rabbi Sacks, “But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and the more they spread.” In other words, he says, “The worse things get, the stronger we become.”

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“Departure of the Israelites,” by David Roberts, 1829 Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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Women’s March, by VOA Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The multitudes of the Israelites said they would not have any more of Pharaoh’s oppression and embarked on a great march. On Saturday, January 21, the day immediately after the inauguration of President Trump, people across the nation and around the world declared they would not stand for the erosion of civil rights his rhetoric and views represent. The story of the protests, like the book of Exodus, offers much reason to hope, for us in the present and, more important, our children in the future.

The book of Exodus tells of suffering under an oppressive tyrant. For the Israelites, things get worse before they get better. However, in the end, they – with divine intervention – rid themselves of Pharaoh.

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“Crossing the Red Sea,” by Nicholas Poussin

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Israel’s Escape from Egypt (illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company)

 

Hardening One’s Heart

Pharaoh’s heart became harder with each passing plague set upon the Egyptians. During the initial plagues, Pharaoh had the opportunity to let the Israelites go. Eventually, however, God took away Pharaoh’s free will, hardening his heart for him.

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Jacques Joseph Tissot, Moses Speaks to Pharaoh (watercolor circa 1896–1902)

Because everyone is capable of redemption, Pharaoh had one last chance at the Sea of Reeds. With his heart ever hardened, he led his troops into the sea. I find myself asking what will happen to President Trump’s heart. Will his heart soften, or will he lead his followers into the salty depths?

 

Speaking for All People

In this parsha, Chapter 4 (verses 10 through 17), Moses tells God, “Please, O Lord, I hav never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translation). The text continues: “And the Lord said to him, ‘Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?'”

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Jacques Joseph Tissot, Moses and Aaron Speak to the People (watercolor circa 1896–1902)

In other words, all people – despite their disability – are equal in God’s creation. His brother, Aaron, assists him with speaking, but eventually it is Moses who leads his people out of darkness to a land of milk and honey.

The Day After: “What Do We Tell the Children”?

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A very strange party (if one can call it that) went into the wee hours of the morning after Election Day 2016.  Many adults have been behaving very badly.  And, soon, the children will be up, getting ready for another day of school in the middle of the week.  Oh no!  What do we tell the children?  And embarrassment should be the least of our emotional worries.

As this blog covers issues pertaining to the welfare of children, the extraordinarily hurtful dialogue (if one can call it that) and public commentary has been a notable concern for the actual harm it has been doing on children.  This concern was discussed in a Southern Poverty Law Center report, “The Trump Effect,” and addressed in a May 30 post here and revisited in an editorial by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times.

To be clear, this is not a comment on politics or an ideology.  Those topics are off topic here and, anyway, have been discussed elsewhere.  The purveying of fear and hate by public and private figures, and its effect on children are not Republican or Democratic, conservative or liberal.

Teaching Tolerance, via the Southern Poverty Law Center, has always offered civics curricula for teaching the election and the importance of voting.  This year, for the reason just mentioned,  is not at all like the other ones.  How do teachers tell students about something that will have a profound effect on them, yet something in which they had no say?  In other words, what do teachers do on “The Day After”?

First, “keep politics out and values in.”  That starts with the teacher.  How do current events make me feel?  How am I coping with them?  Keeping a journal and talking with others are good ways to process feelings.  After that, it is time to think about how to make “core values and democratic ideals” a part of the classroom culture.  Suggestions from Teaching Tolerance include:

  • Defend equal voice.  Every student gets to speak and deserves to be heard.
  • Teach democracy.  This is a classroom of, by and for the students.
  • Make my classroom cafe. We will establish norms that create a safe environment for all students.
  • Ensure fairness.  I will speak up when I hear or see bias, exclusion, prejudice and injustice.

The organization urges teachers to “Publicly commit to these values in your classroom and encourage students and colleagues to commit to them, too.”  Offered are contracts for civility in the classroom and civility in the school.  In addition, further resources are available for teaching the facts about current events, civics, and history.  Above all, “let the students speak.”  

It should be noted that the parent organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center, reported an unprecedented surge in hate incidents over the first two days of the election, with anti-Black and anti-immigrant in the lead, followed by anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ.

Rethinking Schools, part of the Zinn Education Project, also offers resources that can be used in constructing lesson plans.  It should be noted that this organization also fosters an activist teachers view; that type of involvement is up to the individual teacher.

PBS talked to teachers and other education professionals around the country to ascertain their reactions and, more important, how the election has affected their students.

Finally, Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, presented in her Child Watch column her views on “bringing America together for our children’s sake.”   

A future column will be devoted to children and young people with disabilities.

 

 

Some other thoughts:

A father, Dana Milbank, of the Washington Post, pens a letter of fear and hope to his daughter.

Says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, what Abraham and Sarah can best teach us is that parenthood is a means of imparting goodness and justice, one of our greatest blessings.

We need to strengthen communities, say The Huffington Post and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Children around the understand the power of love, singing the Beatles’ famous classic, as well as the one day in December 2009, when children were joined with adults in 156 countries.

Who Speaks for New Jersey’s Children of Undocumented Parents?

…and perhaps of undocumented children as well.  I taught children like these as a bilingual teacher several years ago.  And children like these – children with dreams as big as their hearts – are among the closest friends of my daughters.  Most come from areas of extreme poverty; many come from areas that, because of violence, are among the most dangerous places in the world.

mother and child migrant

By Gillette, Bill, 1932-, Photographer (NARA record: 8464444) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This fine editorial, “Children of Fear,” offers much insight and valuable advice.

Rescuing the Children Who Are “Too Small to Fail”

Nicholas Kristof wrote a superb editorial in the New York Times on the choices we could and should make on behalf of our children, ages 0 to 3, or the first 1,000 days.  His philosopy: Let’s invest in children, “who are too small to fail.”

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He cites several studies, both standalone and collections of important essays.  Of the latter, of note is a brand-new book, The Leading Edge of Childhood Education.

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This 2016 book is an excellent companion to the excellent 2014 book, also by Harvard Graduate School of Education, Improving the Odds for America’s Children, of which a prominent theme is that we have sufficient money to spend on children; it is a matter of setting priorities and making decisions that will benefit America’s children.

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As this blog asked in the previous entry:  Are the candidates for president addressing issues that concern our children and are the media paying any attention?  It’s all about setting priorities and making choices.

The Refugee Crisis: It’s About Mending, Not Building Fences

When I created this blog, it was not my intention to use it as a political mouthpiece.  Recent events in the political arena, however, have been anything but typical.  I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Even where there are walls, there should be open doorways.

Even where there are walls, there should be open doorways.

Last week, a heart-rending photo of a little boy washed up on the beach received tremendous exposure, thanks to the power of the social media.  There is no need to display the photo here; I am sure most readers know exactly which photo I am referring to.  As with all warfare, children are disproportionately affected.  Among huge numbers of refugees fleeing the despair that is Syria, Iraq, Iran, and parts of North Africa are more children than anyone can count, on which the UNHCR has reported.  That little Syrian boy – here is who he was.  At least that once innocent child from Syria on the beach now has a name, Aylan Kurdi.  Beyond the love of his parents, he had little else.

About those recent political happenings… The ones I am referring to are the insidious and pugnacious remarks by Donald Trump in his quest for his presidential nomination.  He and his GOP counterparts are racing to score political points, ranting about the dangers “Mexican rapists” pose (as the true ignorant bigot he his, Mr. Trump wraps up Mexicans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and other Latinos in a single stereotyped adjectives), while a genuine crisis looms across the Atlantic, one not seen since the dark days of Nazism.  Their diatribe trivializes the unfolding tragedy of the refugees, the families, and their children, of which that little Syrian boy is an example.  The whole spectacle is sickening.  What we now confront is no less than moral catastrophe.  For now, a growing number of Democrats in Congress are urging the US to do its part.

Individuals are also being called on to do their part.  After all, says New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, these refugees are people who could be us and probably were our parents or grandparents.  “Love the stranger, because that stranger could be us,” extols Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  Rabbi Sacks brought up the Kindertransport during an NPR interview, when Nicholas Winton organized the transfer of more than 10,000 Jewish children to England, saving their lives from the maws of the Nazi monster.

Hideous cartoons such as this are what follow when solipsistic individuals hijack important social issues to serve their own narrow ends.

Hideous cartoons such as this are what follow when solipsistic individuals hijack important social issues to serve their own narrow ends.

For political games in the US, it needs to be “Game Over.”  As Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai urged, we need to call on our leaders, our representatives.  And Charity Navigator has set up a page to help donors decide on a charity that would put funds to best use.  “Tear down that wall!”  Now is the time for people to come together for all of humanity and mend fences, not build them.