For the first time ever, Sesame Street has a character with autism: Julia, the latest Muppet to join Elmo, Abby, Big Bird, and the rest of the family.
— People magazine (@people) October 21, 2015
Julie is the focal point of a new Sesame Street initiative designed to help kids without autism learn about and understand their neighbors and classmates who may have the condition, as well as to help kids with autism not feel alone, People is reporting. The new project, called “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children,” includes a website, stories, videos, as well as apps designed to help parents of kids with autism with daily tasks.
Certain daily tasks, such as crossing the street or brushing their teeth, can be particularly difficult for kids with autism. The initiative hopes to give those children, and their families, skills and practices they can use to make those tasks easier.
Because autism is considered a “spectrum disorder,” it affects people who live with the condition — children and adults alike — differently, according to Autism Speaks. In general, autism is defined by difficulties in social interaction and processing information.
“Each individual with autism is unique. Many of those on the autism spectrum have exceptional abilities in visual skills, music and academic skills. About 40 percent have average to above average intellectual abilities. Others with autism have significant disability and are unable to live independently. About 25 percent of individuals with ASD are nonverbal but can learn to communicate using other means.”
In a new online storybook entitled “We’re Amazing, 1, 2, 3!,” Elmo and Julia help another friend, Abby, understand why Julia sometimes does things differently than Elmo and Abby do, but they learn they can be friends anyway.
“Elmo’s daddy told Elmo that Julia has autism. So she does things a little differently. Sometimes Elmo talks to Julia using fewer words and says the same thing a few times…. Oh, and sometimes Elmo waits a long time for Julia to answer.”
Since the beginning, Sesame Street has strived to be inclusive of all kids, including those who may feel alone: kids from minority communities, kids who may speak a language other than English at home, kids with disabilities. Through the combination of adult characters who themselves may be minorities, disabled, or multi-lingual, to its cast of Muppets of varying colors, sizes, shapes, and backgrounds, Sesame Street has always been about acceptance of people who are different.
And now that autism is becoming more commonplace, the time is right for Sesame Street to include a character with the condition.
In addition to reaching out to children with autism and their families, the new Sesame Street initiative is also aimed at the peer group of kids with autism. Kids often don’t know how to interact with other kids who are different from them, and that sometimes leads to bullying, says Dr. Jeanette Betancourt.
“Children with autism are five times more likely to get bullied. And with one in 68 children having autism, that’s a lot of bullying. Our goal is to bring forth what all children share in common, not their differences. Children with autism share in the joy of playing and loving and being friends and being part of a group.”
Even adults sometimes get uncomfortable around the subject of autism, says Sherrie Westin.
“Some people don’t even know whether they’re even supposed to say the word autistic. By opening up a dialogue we are trying to get rid of any discomfort or awkwardness, it’s time to increase understanding.”
As of this post, Julia only exists in digital form via Sesame Street‘s digital autism initiative; it is not clear when, or if, she will appear on the TV show.
[Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images]