“Julia” and Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month

When you are part of a family who has a member with Autism, the month of April is going to mean something to you. You may be the person who embraces Autism Awareness and Acceptance month, sharing everything on Facebook that you see or maybe you have an opposite reaction and can’t help but feel a bit weary of the need to constantly promote awareness. 

But whether you have strong feelings one way or the other or are ambivalent about the whole idea, the world (yes, the entire world) has embraced April as Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month and I believe it is here to stay.

With that in mind, I began a very intentional Facebook campaign in April on our Faith Inclusion Network Facebook page. My goal was to take 30 separate photos of individuals, families, businesses, faith communities and other organization representatives that are involved with FIN and somehow, either directly or indirectly, support individuals affected by autism. My ambitious goal was to post every day throughout April.  What I needed, however, was something fun to add in the mix.

“Julia” at taping of interview with Eggleston Services on WNIS 790

That is where “Julia” came in. Julia is the fairly new Muppet on Sesame Street that has Autism. The introduction of this character was highly praised by most of the Autism community a few years ago. I was thrilled when I learned about her, not only because I appreciated that Sesame Street was including a friend that has Autism,  but because Julia is a girl, and there are not as many girls on the Spectrum as boys.

So, I began my quest, emailing and seeking out FIN friends willing to pose

Karen Jackson and daughter Samantha

with Julia. She lived in the car with me and for weeks we traveled around the area to synagogues, churches, homes and businesses, posing inside, outside or wherever it worked. I joked with friends that I really didn’t realize how time-intensive this project would be but I  enjoyed the whole experience immensely.

There were several surprises that made my quest with Julia so joyful and positive. The first was that everyone, and I mean everyone, adored this little toy character. Julia somehow brought a huge smile to everyone’s face immediately, adult or child, big or little, even if people didn’t know who she was at first, they seemed to love her right away.

The second surprise was the encouragement I received from everyone who I was able to photograph. A hug, a few kind words, it all energized me and made me feel very grateful to be a part of this community. In fact today, I took the photo of Rabbi Panitz at Temple Israel, which was a particularly adorable picture with him posing with Julia and a toy Torah. We didn’t have much time as we both had to get to other places, but his words right before I left; “I’m so glad that we’re friends”, are still

Rabbi Michael Panitz of Temple Israel, Norfolk

reverberating in my mind, a reminder that I have made some long-lasting and important relationships in my work with FIN.

As I look back over all of the photos of FIN friends and supporters, I am struck by another and maybe the most important aspect of this little Facebook project. Inclusion is not only relevant in our society today; inclusion is absolutely vital to making our communities the best they can be. Julia strikes a happy chord with so many, I believe, because she serves as a reminder of simple childhood joy and the acceptance of all people, regardless of disability, diagnosis or any other “difference” that makes them stand out. We want the “Julias” of our community to be well-known and well-loved, and I believe there is a lot of love and support out there. But I am not naive. I also realize that not everyone has positive inclusive experiences, whether in faith communities or any other places they venture to go. That is the work that FIN and other organizations in our community undertake every day.  Until everyone in our communities feels loved and included, we will keep working.  

Many thanks to Julia, Sesame Street and all those who took a few moments out of their day to smile with me. Keep up the good work!

Blessings,

Karen Jackson