New Sesame Street Character Can Help Children Learn about Autism

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Julia is a new Sesame Street character with autism. When she has a play date with her new friends, they learn more about having a friend with autism.

Sesame Street has had an innovative year. First, the award-winning show announced a partnership with HBO, then came a Sesame Street cookbook for kids. Now, there’s Julia, the newest addition to the Sesame Street family. Julia, a friend of the long-loved character Elmo, is a bright-eyed girl, who appears to be as happy as any other Sesame Street character.

But she’s a first for Sesame Street: Julia has autism.

Though Julia hasn’t yet been depicted on the Sesame Street television program (she’s currently only a character in a free digital story book on the show’s site), studio executives are seriously contemplating the matter. Why? Childhood autism rates are rising and have been for the last several years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children are diagnosed with having an autism spectrum disorder.

Sesame Street, arguably one of the most powerful children’s programs in the country, has long held a commitment to depicting children of all ages and backgrounds, not excluding religion, race and health—yet the program seemed to shy away from the topic of autism, until now.

“While the diagnosis is common, public understanding of autism is not,” states the Sesame Street Workshop’s website. “The lack of understanding around the condition contributes to discrimination, verbal abuse, even physical violence. A recent study reveals that children with autism are five times more likely to be bullied than their peers — treatment no child should endure. While the differences between people with autism and their peers may seem significant, children share something far more important: unique qualities and talents that make the world an interesting place.”

The Sesame Street Workshop has introduced Julia as part of its initiative called, “Sesame Street and Autism: See All in Amazing Children.” It created this character to bring more awareness to autism.

Julia is a character in a free digital story book who appears with Elmo and Abby in “We’re Amazing, 1,2,3.” It’s also available as an app.

“The character of Julia is a wonderful idea,” says Dr. Noha Minshawi, a clinical director of the Christian Sarkine Autism Treatment Center at Riley at IU Health. “Sesame Street represents a diverse population of children. It’s good to include a child with autism as one of the characters. It can help reduce the stigma.”

In the story, Julia doesn’t respond when Elmo introduces Abby. This causes Abby to think that Julia doesn’t like her. When they sing, Julia knows the words to many songs. When Julia goes to Hooper’s store with Elmo and Abby, the noise of the blender bothers her and she places her hands over her ears. Alan, the store owner, turns off the blender and Julia feels better. He also senses that Julia doesn’t like the thought of hot cocoa, so he offers her cold milk instead.

“It’s a realistic portrayal,” says Dr. Minshawi. “There’s a great variety of behaviors in children with autism. The characteristics portrayed in the story are not present in every child with autism. But they are common characteristics. The story is beneficial because it also points out how minor adjustments can be made to help children cope.”

“With this many children being affected by autism, all of our kids are bound to have a friend, a relative or a classmate who has autism,” says Dr. Minshawi. “Helping children to be more comfortable with a child who has autism can help autistic children feel less socially isolated. This helps in the treatment of autism.”

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