Early Education

Sesame Street’s new character changes the way children relate to peers with autistism

After years of delays and testing, my husband and I knew that the writing was on the wall, but the day that our 3-year-old daughter received her autism diagnosis, my world still shattered.

We were ready for it; we’d read the books, done the research, we knew it was common — after all, one in 68 children in the United States has some varying degree of autism — yet when the word autism came out of the doctor’s mouth we were lost.

As difficult as the diagnosis was on us, it was worse for our 6-year-old son because he doesn’t know what Autism Spectrum Disorder means. We often have to remind him that just because his little sister can’t talk, doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have feelings, opinions, and wants and needs.

That’s why I was so excited when Sesame Street recently introduced a new character with autism. Her name is Julia, and she is the star of the interactive Web story We’re Amazing 1,2,3! which is aimed at neuro-typical children to help them better understand their peers with this disorder.

This new autism initiative has been in the works for years, according to Dr. Wendy Stone, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington who was brought into the project in 2009. Stone is the director of the university’s research for early autism detection and intervention lab, which made her a prime candidate for Sesame Street’s team of autism consultants. Stone says she is happy with the final product.

“I think their array of products are fantastic,” she said. “Having characters with autism that are not shown in a sugar-coated way — in that we are all different and all the same — is the most powerful message you can give a child.”

Stone explains that the new online tools aren’t just for families affected by autism.

“There are videos for parents, siblings, parents of typically developing children who want to interact with parents who have children with autism, and for parents who want to have a child with autism over for a playdate,” Stone said.

As a parent of a child with autism, I know that my child is different than her peers in some ways. The struggles she has communicating and interacting with her environment are already a struggle; the last thing I want is for her to be teased about her differences.

A study by the Interactive Autism Network surveyed 1,167 children ages 6 to 15 on a spectrum that revealed that 63 percent had been bullied at some point in their lives.

“Some of the videos show the kids with autism interacting with Abby Cadabby or Elmo, and they frame it so positively even when the kids run away from [the characters],” Stone said. “It makes children with autism seem not so weird and different; it makes other kids realize that they feel that way too sometimes.”

Stone says she is not sure if Sesame Street will ever make a Julia puppet for the television show, but she’s optimistic that if it happens, it will be done right.

“At first I thought it would be very hard to represent the complexity of autism in a fuzzy cartoon character. I was worried about misrepresenting [children on the spectrum],” Stone said. “Sesame Street has been very careful moving forward with this project; the amount and time and feedback that went into getting the storybook right makes me feel comfortable about them doing it right.”

is the managing editor of South Sound magazine. Email her.
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