“Sesame Street” has taken a step to help reduce the stigma of autism. As of this morning, old familiar Muppet characters such as Grover, Elmo and Abby have a new pal. She’s Julia, and she’s autistic.
It’s part of a new education initiative that includes a free downloadable app that incorporates video, digital story cards designed to make daily life tasks easier for families of children with autism and storybook materials for providers, organizations and caregivers. The material is designed for families that have children aged two to five.
“This is what makes our project so unique,” says Dr. Jeanette 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.”
In an interview with People Magazine, Dr. Betancourt says, “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.”
Researches worked for three years developing the initiative and hope it will ultimately bring people together.
“Some people don’t even know whether they’re even supposed to say the word autistic,” says Executive Vice President of Global Impacts and Philanthropy Sherrie Westin. “By opening up a dialogue, we are trying to get rid of any discomfort or awkwardness. It’s time to increase understanding.”
In an attempt to highlight what’s common among children rather than focusing upon differences, elements of the material tell what being autistic is like from the perspective of a child with autism. For example, in the storybooks Julia explains to her Sesame Street friends how she likes to play a little differently from them.
“If you’re five years old, and see another kid not making eye contact with you, you may think that child doesn’t want to play with you. But that’s not the case,” Westin explains. “We want to create greater awareness and empathy.”
The project is directed both at families with children with autism and the general public. It hopes to teach parents the best way to handle everyday stressful situations such as brushing teeth, going to bed and crossing the street.
“Families with autistic children tend to gravitate toward digital content, which is why we created Julia digitally,” Westin, told People”. “We want parents and children to understand that autism isn’t an uncomfortable topic.”