In 2015, Sesame Street announced they were introducing a new character with autism named Julia. She first appeared in the 2016 digital storybook “We’re Amazing, 1, 2, 3!” and made her official television debut on April 10th of this year. While many believe Julia will help autistic children feel less alone, some aren’t too pleased. According to the anti-vaxx website Natural News, “The rollout of autistic Julia is Sesame Street’s attempt to “normalize” vaccine injuries and depict those victimized by vaccines as happy, ‘amazing’ children rather than admitting the truth that vaccines cause autism in some children and we should therefore make vaccines safer and less frequent to save those children from a lifetime of neurological damage.” The article further claims that Elmo is “exploited as a literal puppet by the vaccine industry to push a pro-vaccine message” using “social engineering propaganda.” With its debunked claims and disturbing rhetoric, Natural News sums up why the anti-vaxx movement is dangerous: it’s based on both pseudoscience and ableism.
The claim that vaccines cause autism comes began in 1998 when Andrew Wakefield and a team of colleagues published a paper in the Lancet claiming there was a connection between MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccines and autism. Even though the sample size was extremely small, the design of the study had no real control, and the conclusion was speculative, it got a lot of attention and a lot of parents stopped vaccinating their kids. However, repeat studies showed no connection between MMR vaccinations and autism. Not only that, but ten to twelve of Wakefield’s co-authors retracted the original study, and it turns out Wakefield forgot to mention that he was receiving funding from lawyers of parents who were suing companies making these vaccines. Wakefield’s study was finally retracted from the Lancet, and he was struck off the UK medical register.
Unfortunately, instead of fading into obscurity, Wakefield doubled down on his claims with the 2016 propaganda film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe. Not only does the film rehash the same claims that have already been debunked, but uses a more sinister approach by using autistic children as props. The film shows autistic kids having meltdowns, and parents interviewed on camera say that their children are beyond damaged … right in front of their kids.
“Living anywhere on the spectrum is difficult,” says Trolling with Logic podcast host Nathan Dickey, “including on the very mild side.” Dickey, who has Asperger’s syndrome, says it’s hard enough to communicate with people who don’t understand what it’s like having autism, and the anti-vaxx movement’s penchant for labeling autistic kids as broken doesn’t help. “When people say that ‘the light went out of the child’s eyes,’” he says, “I feel like they are denying the autistic sufferer’s humanity. Now, many parents of special-needs children often do this without realizing it. But it is especially disgusting when anti-vaxxers cherry-pick the most extreme and tragic cases of autism for sensationalistic purposes to push their anti-science, fear-driven agenda.”
While many dismiss the anti-vaxxers as a fringe group, the figures show they have more influence than expected. In a New York Times op-ed from February of this year, pediatrician Peter J. Hotez warned readers about a possible measles outbreak in America thanks to more parents opting out of giving their children MMR vaccinations:
Texas, where I live and work, may be the first state to once again experience serious measles outbreaks. As of last fall, more than 45,000 children here had received nonmedical exemptions for their school vaccinations. A political action committee is raising money to protect this “conscientious exemption” loophole and to instruct parents on how to file for it. As a result, some public school systems in the state are coming dangerously close to the threshold when measles outbreaks can be expected, and a third of students at some private schools are unvaccinated.
Measles, according to Hotez, is one of the most dangerous and contagious of all diseases, and only one person with the virus can spread it to “more than a dozen unvaccinated people, typically infants too young to have received their first measles shot.” With lower vaccination rates, the U.S. could possibly see uncontrollable outbreaks not since “the 1950s when four million Americans a year were infected and 450 died.”
Fortunately there is some good news. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, about 82 percent of Americans believe all healthy schoolchildren should receive MMR vaccines. The survey also shows 88 percent of participants believe the benefits of vaccines outweigh the risks, and that those risks are very low. Perhaps Hotez was wrong and the anti-vaxxers don’t have as much influence as he thought. Either way, Sesame Street is not part of a Big Pharma conspiracy to inject autism into kids with their pro-vaccination campaign and sensitive portrayal of Julia. Instead, they are saving lives and humanizing autistic children.
Trav Mamone is a queer trans blogger who write about the intersections of social justice and secular humanism at Bi Any Means. They also host the Bi Any Means Podcast and co-host the Biskeptical Podcast.