*This post originally appeared on The PediaBlog on January 11, 2016.
Julia — Amazing Muppet!
Sesame Street has been an educational institution in the United States for 46 years. As part of the Sesame Workshop’s initiative “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children,” the program now has its first autistic character. KJ Dell’Antonia introduces us to Julia:
Sesame Street got so many things right with its new character, Julia, an orange-haired girl with autism whose eyes never quite meet the reader’s. Introduced in a digital storybook available online and in print, Julia is described as an old friend of Elmo’s. When Elmo’s muppet friend Abby meets Julia, she is confused, and she has questions. Julia doesn’t talk to her right away, does that mean Julia doesn’t like her? Why does Julia get so upset over loud noises?
And then there are the things Abby doesn’t comment on — Julia knows every word to a lot of songs. She spins the wheels of toy cars over and over and over again, and flaps her arms when she is excited. She is a recognizably different (and recognizably autistic) without being overwhelmingly so, and while not every child with autism is exactly like Julia and she doesn’t (couldn’t) display every possible characteristic of every child with autism, children with autism can find themselves in her, and children learning about the condition can start here.
The initiative, says Rose Minutaglio, is directed at families with autistic children as well as the general public. Digital storybooks like the one that features Julia, and videos like the one below featuring Benny, aim to “reduce the stigma of autism” and the bullying that accompanies it:
“Children with autism are five times more likely to get bullied,” senior vice president of U.S. social impact, Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, tells PEOPLE. “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.”
Looking to highlight commonalities among children instead of focusing on differences, the app and online videos explain what having autism is like from the perspective of a child with autism.
“This is what makes our project so unique,” says Dr. Betancourt. “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 therefor more inclusive.”
Here’s “Benny’s Story”:
Watch some really good videos and meet Julia and other amazing people and characters on Sesame Street here!
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