by Keerthi Vedantam and Summer Sorg
Heather Davis can still remember telling her son he couldn’t have a soda.
“That was it. He had a meltdown in public. It went on forever.”
The 30-year-old Surprise nurse crouched down in the middle of a busy supermarket and tried to calm his screams as his little fists pounded against the floor and strangers crowded the two.
It would go on like that for years. Before Brennan Davis was diagnosed with autism, Heather and her husband, Chris, found themselves leaving the house cautiously, knowing at any moment Brennan could get upset. Most tantrums seemed to happen at random, and were aggravated by attention. Most excursions ended earlier than expected.
“We always knew there was something but didn’t know what it was,” Heather said. “We kind of learned how to go with the flow with him.”
Others weren’t so helpful when Brennan was experiencing sensory overload. One mother told Heather, “You need Supernanny,” referencing a reality show for struggling families. “Your child is out of control.”
One in 68 kids are diagnosed with autism, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. On April 2, Autism Awareness Day, Sesame Street launched new resources to help families and communities understand autism.
One of those resources is a new picture book featuring Julia, the first Muppet with autism. In Family Forever, Sesame Street introduces Julia’s family and how they help her through distressing events that can trigger an episode. The book is written by Leslie Kimmelman, whose son has autism, and Julia Bascom, who is on the spectrum herself.
Throughout Autism Awareness Month, Sesame Street is rolling out more videos and interactive stories about Julia, how she prepares for everyday events, and how her family and friends patiently work with her so she can be included in social events. Sherrie Westin, executive vice president for global impact and philanthropy at Sesame Workshop hopes these resources will make a difference in the autism community.
“Seeing the difference that Julia has made since her debut on Sesame Street has been heartwarming,” she said. “Julia has shown that all children, autistic and neurotypical alike, are amazing in their own ways.”
When Brennan was formally diagnosed with autism at seven years old, the family immediately took him to child psychologists who specialized in autism. There, they learned how to avoid overwhelming spaces, how to look for cues he might have a tantrum, and how support him through it.
“We were very relieved because finally we knew how to get him the help he needs,” Heather said. Sisters Kylie and Annika became teammates for Brennan in over-stimulating situations, supporting him the way they were taught to by the therapists.
“Kylie learned to watch for his cues,” Heather said. “When she saw he was about to get upset she knew she would have to walk away to help him avoid something from happening.”
Supporting someone who has autism is often a family effort. In Family Forever, Kimmelman and Bascom show how Julia’s parents and older brother work as a team when Julia loses a sentimental stuffed animal.
It’s the kind of team Reagan Sensmeier, 19, and her brother, Wesley, have formed growing up. Wesley is only two years younger than Reagan and was diagnosed with autism at a young age.
“It helps that we were so close growing up,” Reagan said, looking at her brother, “I can help you understand what’s going on. And I can look at you and know when you’re okay.”
“I’m still so sorry about that one Lowes trip,” Wesley said.
At a trip to the hardware store, Wesley wanted a specific cart made for kids with the plastic car in the front. When he couldn’t have it, he had a tantrum and the family had to leave the store.
“So sometimes we had to do things a little differently. Sometimes we had to adjust our schedules,” Reagan said. “It’s okay.”
Beyond gaining an understanding Wesley’s mannerisms, Reagan said the biggest thing she learned from her brother was patience.
“The kid that has no patience teaches you patience,” Wesley pointed out.
“Yeah it’s funny how that works isn’t it?” Reagan said. “I pay more attention in situations and I kind of watch to see what’s going on with people and how they’re reacting to things. I can understand more that way, just ‘cause that’s how it always was with Wes.”
“As siblings, we’re pretty close just in general,” Reagan said, looking at her brother.
“Yeah, we tried to stay in contact but––”
“Yeah, school is hard,” Reagan said, reading his mind, “But it didn’t really change anything did it?”
“No not really,” Wesley said.
“When I see you and can still do this,” she said, lightly punching his arm.
“Owww,” Wesley joked, rubbing his arm.
Sesame Street’s new launch also include digital routine cards showing Julia going through potentially distressing experiences like getting a haircut or going to a sporting event, and showing how the people around her can make those experiences a little more comfortable.
Reagan and Wesley were careful about going to a recent concert, which they thought might be too overstimulating for Wesley. Reagan kept an eye on her brother’s mannerisms as he grew comfortable with his surroundings, and the concert became another successful sibling outing.
Wesley has hope these new resources will do more than just normalize the word ‘autism’, it will show how some people with autism really live.
“I think it’ll impact it a lot more than just hearing the word of what it is, ‘cause it shows it,” Wesley said.
As for Heather, she hopes these resources will help other parents understand how to help her son when he gets upset, instead of crowding him and giving her dirty looks.
“I just hope people realize we’re all trying our best.”