Over the summer, PBS Kids released a new series called “Hero Elementary” that features a group of kids with special abilities. Each character is unique, and has their own challenges and super powers. One of the main characters, AJ Gadgets is on the autism spectrum.
While the creators of the show, Carol-Lynn Parente and Christine Ferraro, didn’t originally set out to create an autistic character, they love how it worked out. Ferraro stated in a recent interview that it sends a strong message because the show isn’t all about AJ Gadgets or his autism, instead it is about the group of diverse kids who solve problems together. AJ can project his thoughts and has various devices that help the team. His teammates can fly, teleport, or create forcefields. They are all portrayed as equally important to the team.
Autism is not the focus of the show, and people who are not familiar with the disorder may not notice that AJ has it. He doesn’t like hearing loud noises, feeling wet clothes, or being without his backpack. There are one or two future episodes that focus on AJ Gadgets, but the creators are very intentional about keeping AJ as just another regular part of the team, showing that people on the spectrum have a place in the world, and they contribute, too.
Dennis Taylor, is a consultant for the show. He is a 27-year-old, autistic artist and storyteller. He helps with the AJ Gadget’s character on every episode. Taylor hopes to help bring awareness and acceptance of people on the spectrum through his work behind the scenes of the show. His involvement helps keep the character true to life when it comes to being on the spectrum.
The other characters have their own issues to face as well. Lucita is afraid of heights. Sara is really small. They are all still learning to use their powers to the best of their ability. Everyone helps each other out, including AJ Gadgets. There is a lot of teamwork, and no one character is pointed our more than the other, showing great inclusiveness, support, and understanding for our autistic representation.
One of the major goals of “Hero Elementary” is to encourage children between the ages of 4 and 7 to use problem solving skills, empathy and kindness. The creators want to help people remember that all kids are different in their own ways. PBS will produce at least 40-80 episodes, each with two stories, for a total of about 30 minutes each. Co-creator Parente noted that she wants the show to help kids think more scientifically and independently.
Parente is also behind the Sesame Street character Julia, who is also on the spectrum. Julia was introduced several years ago online, and has appeared on the show several times. In the last three years, Julia has been a special part of Autism Awareness Month, which is April.
“Hero Elementary” is being shown on PBS stations, including the PBS kids 24/7 channel, and the PBS kids digital application.