Why I love Sesame Street's autism initiative

"The truth about autism is that there is no truth about autism. Each case is so singular, so individual, so unique."

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If your kid is neurotypical, you may not have had cause to scour bookstores for all sorts of things, like books to help him, books to help you, books to help others understand him, and books to help you understand why you’re a different person these days.

Rewind about six weeks: A good friend of mine sent me a laundry list of places to visit in her hometown of Halifax during our epic two-week road trip in August that took us from Toronto through the winding Cabot Trail, down to New Hampshire, across to Montreal, until we finally returned to Toronto. Her list was great, and kid-friendly.

One of the stops on her list seemed innocent enough: Woozles—Canada’s oldest kids’ bookstore, nestled in two conjoined century homes on a tree-lined street. My four-and-a-half-year-old son Isaiah loves books more than anything. They’re equal parts educational tool and also a self-imposed shield from the parts of the world he can’t understand or wishes to avoid. Isaiah was born with a rare disease called Galactosemia (a serious condition where the body can’t digest galactose, a sugar found in milk), Autism Spectrum Disorder and a Global Developmental Delay. His carefully curated and well-worn collection of books are both a blessing and a curse. Therefore, Woozles was a natural stop for us.

It was cozy, quiet, so unlike big-box bookstores. I stumbled across a section filled with a diverse selection of topics. Amongst the books about families with same-sex parents, gender neutrality, death and disease, was a thin little picture book called I See Things Differently. I found myself kneeling in the store, silently sobbing and drying my tears off the pages. I was, in part, relieved to have found this book. I simultaneously wanted to seek out every copy for purchase, to give one to every person I know who has a kid approaching school-age. I wanted to hand out the book to thwart the inevitable questions from other kids and parents: Why is he doing that? Why doesn’t he like me? Why doesn’t he want to play? Why doesn’t he look at me? Is he OK? What’s wrong with him?

A couple weeks ago, popular blogger Autism Daddy (someone I followed before I was an autism mommy myself, but suspected I might be) revealed (along with his identity as a long-term employee of Sesame Street) that the long-running hit TV show plans to launch an outreach initiative for kids with autism this month. Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children will combat the isolation and stigma facing families of kids with autism and also better inform the general public.

Just like the day I found that book in a tiny store in Halifax, I wanted to rush to the website and read everything about the initiative. I wanted to share the news with everyone. I wanted to rush home to show it to my son, to stand there and watch him as he engages (or doesn’t) with this new interactive tool.

But I’ve learned to tread with extreme caution, and to silently celebrate even a modicum of progress. My iPad is weighed down with apps for kids with autism. My bookshelf sags under the weight of guides and manuals and manifestos. My desk drawers are filled with printouts and handouts and book excerpts, where each purports to be the newest and best and most interactive thing to read or own.

I’ve learned that no one resource can answer all our silent prayers and middle-of-the-night panic attacks. The truth about autism is that there is no truth about autism. Each case is so singular, so individual, so unique. While they are woven of common threads, each kid with autism—and their level of function and predictability—is so drastically different. It’s why it’s such a labyrinth. It’s why the disorder is referred to as a “spectrum”—an incredibly broad spectrum that covers this diverse group of people, creating a facade of uniformity where virtually none exists.

Charlotte Schwartz is a Toronto-based mom of two boys, a full-time law clerk, part-time fitness instructor and baked-goods enthusiast. This year, she’ll run three marathons over three days, from Toronto to Niagara Falls, to promote awareness and raise funds for Galactosemia research. 

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