Shirley Donlon looks at the growing awareness in popular culture for autism.
One in every 100 people in Ireland have autism, according to a survey conducted by Irish Autism Action in conjunction with Dublin City University (DCU). Autism is a neuro-developmental disability that affects the areas of social interaction and communication of the brain in terms of development.
 
This means that people diagnosed with autism have difficulty forming relationships and communicating with people. They also have great difficulty learning and developing language skills and using abstract concepts. With 34% of children with autism saying that the worst thing about being at school is being picked on, it comes to our attention that society has a long way to go in terms of understanding autism [ https://autismireland.ie/understanding-autism/ ].
 
Last month, children’s programme Sesame Street introduced a new character called Julia - a muppet with autism. The new character is set to debut on Sesame Street this month on US channels HBO and PBS and has already been featured in printed and digital storybooks.
 
The introduction of this new character has undoubtedly been decided upon as autism is steadily growing and perhaps the best way to make people more aware of the disability itself is to introduce it on a platform that will be seen by children of a young age with the aim of familiarising them with autism early. But is a cartoon character really a good solution to educating society on what autism is?
 
Using characters in TV shows and movies to illustrate the importance of a disease, disability or issue is not a new idea. For years, producers and writers have been creating awareness, whether discreetly or obviously, through the use of characters. Disney Pixar’s ‘Finding Nemo’ featured a character called Dory who suffered from short-term memory loss; a condition in which the ability of the brain to store short-term items is limited due to a number of causes ranging from lack of oxygen to the brain, alcohol and drug abuse, concussions and other trauma to the head.
 
How much awareness this created for the condition of short-term memory loss cannot be confirmed, but it certainly did more good than harm in terms of raising awareness of what it is.
 
The same hope can be held in place for autism awareness.
 
Sesame Street writer Christine Ferraro told the CBS News show 60 minutes that, “the big discussion right at the start was ‘How do we do this? How do we talk about autism?”. She explained that it was “tricky because autism is not one thing, because it is different for every single person who has autism.”
 
On March 13th, RTÉ showcased a documentary on autism which featured a number of people who suffer from the disability. One participant in the documentary, Hughie Malone (11) spoke about society’s need to label people saying that he thinks this causes people with autism to miss out on things.
 
Another recent measure to raise awareness and cater to the needs of those with autism is a new sensory room specifically created for people with autism in Shannon airport. The facility is the first of its kind in a European airport offering a relaxing environment for adults and children prior to boarding their flight. By creating such a place of specific destination for autistic people, society’s attitude of acceptance and recognition is evident.
 
All these public measures taken to raise awareness about autism are a step forward, but society's attitude towards autism will not change until people begin to stop drawing lines of confinement around those suffering from the disability.
 
Like anything, familiarising yourself with an issue will make understanding how those suffer from it a lot easier. Whether that familiarity comes in the form of a cartoon character or real-life people who have autism, educating society about autism will stand to us.
 
Although society has a long way to go in terms of being one hundred percent understanding and aware of autism, efforts are undoubtedly being made, restoring confidence that we are on our way to becoming an autism accepting society.