Autism and the Muppets: Seeing Yourself in the Frog

Published: April 7, 2021
Categories: Commentary, Feature

This article is brought to you by Maria Nance. Many, many thanks to Maria for all her hard work, honesty, and Muppet fun!

Growing up as an Autistic woman, I didn’t have a Julia character to help me understand why I was different than the other kids on the playground. There wasn’t a lot of representation in the terms of autism. (Generally speaking, there’s not many today that aren’t bad representation, but that’s besides my point. Julia is great representation! The Good Doctor isn’t.) When I was little, I got made fun of for how I talked, walked, how my hands moved, how I moved. I was considered gullible and took things too literally. I got tricked constantly because I don’t understand sarcasm, and when I do, it takes me a few minutes. I was told I had to have “quiet hands” and make direct eye contact no matter what. Autistic people like me know how horrible all this feels, physically and mentally.

And we’re just supposed to accept it. “Kids are mean, get over it.” Statements similar to that all our lives, dismissing us. We’re already dealing with constant sensory overload that no one teaches us how to accommodate for, but now scrutiny from teachers and fellow peers over just how our brains work. I like to say it isn’t because a neurotypical brain and a neurodivergent brain are working the same, one is just a bit off; no, they’re each running on different software. Both are working wonderfully, mine’s a Chromebook and yours is a Dell laptop.

For most of my early life, I was set up to feel lesser because of the prevalent ableism in society. And as difficult as it was, I always had some of my favorite Muppet characters to help. Not in the way you think, mind you, but in the way I think.

1. Kermit the Frog

It wasn’t until a year ago that I realized Kermit and I flap our hands almost the exact same way. Sure, mine don’t go over my head, and his is more of a schtick than involuntary, but you get the idea. Stimming is short for a self-stimulatory behavior that is marked by reputation in movement. Flapping your hands is a subsection of stimming. (There are many other stims out there, and I do tons myself besides flapping, but I’m talking about flapping here because Kermit.) I was taught that flapping is too distracting for other people, that no one likes or wants to see it. But then it hit me, everyone loves Kermit’s! So why is mine any different? People mimic him and ask for him to do it, it’s his signature thing, along with his “YAY!!!” Why should I be ashamed of mine? A famous frog does it, and gets applause. I should be able to do it and not get ridiculed.

2. Miss Piggy

Now I know Miss Piggy’s whole character is about being a diva, but please walk with me for a moment. I love schedules, I love knowing what’s happening when and where to be. I work out every other day at ten pm and then take a shower. I write or paint for a few hours after five pm. When theater was a thing, I would perform in shows, have rigorous, tight scheduling. And when those schedules get messed up without me knowing, I might have a bit of a meltdown, I don’t know what to do with myself. Depending on said meltdown, which is involuntary, I usually either cry or get very angry, or both. Sometimes I go completely silent and blank. 

And I know it’s not the “correct” interpretation, because Piggy’s a diva and we’re supposed to see her demands as too much. But any time Kermit changed the schedule on The Muppet Show so Piggy couldn’t have a solo or a sketch, I could interpret it as her internal schedule being messed up, her getting worried and panicking, and the overstimulation from her emotions inducing a meltdown, either angry or sad, just like mine. How she needs a consistency, how it helps her feel comfortable. How all her emotions are too much and the only way to force them out of her body is by yelling or bawling, or hitting a pillow. Or in her case, a frog. (This is not me advocating or encouraging frog/people punching, I’m just saying when I have an angry meltdown, I punch a pillow so I don’t hurt someone or myself. And I can interpret Piggy’s outburst as such. If she was having a meltdown, I would try to redirect her anger at a pillow or a punching bag. Not a frog or a certain purple bassist.)

And on the other side of the coin, Piggy’s character of being a diva is her trying to hide the fact she’s a pig. In the autistic community, we have a similar thing called masking. We mask our autistic traits to seem neurotypical to the world around us. Usually it’s for specific social interactions, at school or work. It requires deliberate, internal thought and planning. We have to mimic neurotypical speech patterns and body movements to fit in and be accepted as people. Things that come naturally to some, are conscious efforts to others. I know when making eye contact, that every three to four seconds, I have to look away and then back at their eyes to pass as allistic. And it’s exhausting to a monumental degree, doing it for too long can cause overstimulation and lead to violent meltdowns. Not regular ones, violent. It’s unfortunate that neurodivergent traits are seen as unwanted in professional settings, so we mask.

And I could take Piggy’s “masking” to act like a diva, like people expect her to act, as my own version of masking. It might not make masking any less tedious and nerve wracking, but it’s a nice thought to have. This fabulous, diva pig that so many look up to, might go through similar problems that I do. And look where she is, I can make it through another meeting.

3. Gonzo and Walter

Both Gonzo and Walter have something in common, both are obsessed and consumed with something. For Gonzo, it’s chickens, his girlfriend’s a chicken, he loves them, he has them in stunts constantly. For Walter, it’s The Muppets. Autistics have something similar called special interests. The stereotype is a little boy obsessed with trains, when in reality our special interests can be anything. For some, such as myself or Walter, it’s media entertainment. For others, it’s pastimes or animals or objects. Special interests are when our brains latch onto specific things and have the absolute need to learn everything about the topic. For a friend of mine, it’s how glass vases are made and poisonous creatures. Another friend loves rotoscope animations and is an animator. For myself, it’s puppetry, The Muppets specifically, but all puppetry in general.

So much so that in my eighth grade yearbook, my teachers named me a future “Muppeteer.” Which I corrected was a term the Muppet performers don’t like/use anymore. My teachers thought I was being ungrateful and nitpicky, I thought I was just giving them useful information. But, as you can gleam, I talk about the Muppets often. I’m here, aren’t I? My brain is like a sponge soaking up as much information on the topic as I can, constantly learning and researching. And it stays there, and I have the urge to tell anyone I meet. But I know that’s not socially acceptable at all times. Again, that’s why I’m here, aren’t I? Truly, it’s fun to think that some of my favorite Muppets and I have something in common. Maybe if I ever run into Walter or Gonzo we can infodump to each other about what we love most.

4. Fozzie Bear and Beaker

I would be remiss to not talk about Fozzie and Beaker, both of whom are heavily and unintentionally autistic coded. Fozzie’s very gullible, he doesn’t understand tone or sarcasm, and he moves in very specific ways. Beaker, obviously he only speaks through meeps (I could reason his way of communicating is echolalia, which is the repeating of words and phrases when one cannot speak. Either only speaking through echolalia, or using it as a way to gain back one’s voice.) He’s constantly being misunderstood, and his shyness could be seen as selective mutism (which is something I have.) 

Fozzie takes things at face value, unless thoroughly explained to. I immediately think of the Edgar Bergen episode where Kermit finally tells him how ventriloquism works and he’s flabbergasted and stunned. His double take and shaking of his puppet, Chucky, it’s oh so familiar to me. In the episode where he thinks everyone hates him and wants him gone, when in actuality, everyone is talking about Gonzo’s old stuffed teddy bear. When he doesn’t check in with his mom, taking all of his friends to his childhood home for Christmas, because he assumes she’ll be there missing him. It’s not that he’s inconsiderate, he’s empathetic and misconstrues things. He’s hopeful and determined, he’s an inspiration. Fozzie can be seen as a textbook autistic character, you could take his mimicking of others as his own way of masking. You could see his catchphrase as a way to ground himself, how dynamically and specifically he moves his body could correlate directly to an autistic person’s. So much so, it’s even hard for me, an Autistic person, to articulate, because I look at him and I see me.

Beaker, and I know this might sound controversial, I think he’s also an inspiration. I know, he gets hurt a lot, but this man is doing what he loves. He probably has multiple PhD’s, he has his own schedule and life outside of Muppet Lab segments. Beaker might have selective mutism and speak through echolalia, or it might be his own fun language. I don’t know, but it’s undeniable, after every explosion, every eaten paperclip, every sharpened banana knife hurled at his head, he gets back up and tries again. And he keeps going and he’s not hindered by his lack of voice. Just because he’s not talking like some people say he should be, doesn’t mean he’s not thinking or feeling, or understanding. He’s not any less a man or a scientist because of his lack of voice. To me, to someone who literally cannot control her own voice due to trauma and overstimulation sometimes, Beaker is an inspiration and a delight.

Am I definitively saying these Muppets are autistic? No, just like the article on the Nonbinary community finding an icon in Gonzo, I can do the same with some of my favorite Muppets. Like Rowlf, Boober, Wembley, and Zoot, are there any bases in canon to say they can be coded as Autistic? Not really, I just love them, so in my personal time I’ll headcanon them as such. Right now the only canon Autistic Muppet is Julia, and I think she’s pretty fantastic. 

Happy Autism Acceptance Month! I know some specific people say Autism Awareness Month, but we’ve been aware of autism for a very long time, we need to start to accept it. Just like The Muppets all accept each other, I know they would accept and love me just the same.

Click here to infodump about The Muppets on the ToughPigs forum!

by Maria Nance


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