As part of a Sesame Workshop initiative aimed at reducing the stigma of autism, a Muppet with autism has been added to the cast of “Sesame Street.” Launched Oct. 21, the new initiative features Julia, a friend of Elmo’s who has autism.
“Children with autism are five times more likely to get bullied,” Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president of community and family engagement for Sesame Workshop, told People Magazine. “And with one in 68 children having autism, that’s a lot of bullying. Our goal is to bring forth what all children have 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,” she added.
“Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children,” is aimed at communities and at families with children ages 2 to 5. Available in a free downloadable app or on desktop, the material has Julia tell her story in a series of online videos, interactive games, and storybooks.
Sesame Workshop researchers worked for three years on the initiative, partnering with 14 other organizations, including the Yale Child Study Center and Autism Speaks. What makes the project so unique is that it explains what having autism is like through the eyes of a child with autism.
“When we explain from a child’s point of view that there are certain behaviors, such as slapping their hands or making noises to express excitement or unhappiness, it helps younger children to understand how to interact with their autistic peers. It makes children more comfortable and therefore more inclusive,” Betancourt told CBS News.
For example, in the digital storybook, “We’re Amazing, 1,2,3!,” Elmo helps his friend Abby understand some of Julia’s behaviors: “Elmo’s daddy told Elmo that Julia has autism. So she does things a little differently. Sometimes Elmo talks to Julia in fewer words and says the same thing a few times.”
The project also includes materials directed at families with children with autism. One section includes daily routine cards that provide best practices for such potentially stressful day-to-day activities as brushing teeth, going to bed, and crossing the street.
“We want parents and children to understand that autism isn’t an uncomfortable topic,” Sherrie Westin, executive vice president of global impacts and philanthropy at Sesame Workshop, told People Magazine. “Some people don’t even know whether they’re even supposed to say the word ‘autistic.’ By opening up the dialogue we are trying to get rid of any discomfort or awkwardness. It’s time to increase understanding,” she said.