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Sesame Street to introduce a new Muppet with autism: An initiative aimed to reduce the stigma of autism.

A young female Muppet with autism, Julia, was recently introduced on Sesame Street, an internationally well-known television program for young children in the United States. This was a part of the initiative, Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children, which is intended to reduce the stigma of autism. Stigma is often defined as "a strong lack of respect for a person or a group of people or a bad opinion of them because they have done something society does not approve of" ("Stigma"). Such stigma is directed not only at children with autism, but also their family members who frequently experience the stigma of being affiliated with the child. Examples are things like disapproval, discrimination, isolation, and shame.

According to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 68 children has been identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the United States (CDC, 2014). Based on the increasing need to support children with ASD, Sesame Street has introduced a character of a child with ASD in their storybook since 2015. This effort was motivated by the recognized need to address the stigma experienced by children with autism and their families, and to promoting understanding of autism in society. This initiative focuses on 2 to 5-year-old children and is known as Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.

What is Sesame Street?

Sesame Street is an educational children's television program in the U.S.A., which is funded by the Head Start Program. The Head Start Program started in 1965 as part of an effort to combat poverty in the U.S.A. It is a federal program that promotes school readiness for young children from low-income families. The program bridges the achievement gap between poor and privileged children before they enter elementary school.

Sesame Workshop is a non-profit organization. It was the joint creation of a documentary producer, Joan Ganz Cooney and an experimental psychologist, Lloyd Morrisett. Morrisett was also the vice-president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The goal of Sesame Street is to use television as an educational tool to capture and sustain young children's attention to deliver a comprehensive educational curriculum, particularly for low-income families to help them get ready for school.

Recent studies conducted in the U.S.A. have indicated the health disparities of autism among children in various groups. The prevalence of autism varies according to demographic factors, such as SES (socio-economic status) and race/ethnicity. Children with lower SES were less likely to receive a diagnosis of autism, compared to children with higher SES (Durkin et al.,2010). In addition, minority (e.g., Black, Hispanic) children tend to receive a diagnosis of autism much later than White children (Christensen et al., 2016). For this reason, it is crucial to help under-served populations learn about autism. This is an advocacy effort to increase social awareness and to promote acceptance of autism, especially among children and families who are less privileged.

Sesame Street addresses sensitive issues to reduce the stigma affecting vulnerable families.

Before a new Muppet with autism, Julia, appeared on Sesame Street, there were other efforts to decrease stigma affecting children and families who are going through stressful situations. One example was a boy Muppet Alex who has a parent in prison. The South African edition of Sesame Street introduced Kami, a girl Muppet that is HIV-positive. Both characters have this in common: they themselves or their families have faced isolation, embarrassment, rejection, and misunderstanding due to the nature of their problems. Sesame Street has an important mission to help those vulnerable families by reducing stigma and building positive perceptions toward them.

Autism is a neurological disorder, which is often defined as an invisible disability. The hidden nature of autism often leads to misunderstanding and sometimes criticism or bullying by others. By explaining the characteristics of autism through a new Muppet character with autism, Julia, it is intended that the viewers of Sesame Street will be positively informed and thus develop a positive perception of autism. Another significance of this initiative may be explained as diversity education. Promoting diversity, which means accepting others who are different from oneself, is a crucial goal for not only young children, but also their parents. The Sesame Workshop created an online initiative, Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children, which includes information and resources related to autism for families and the public.

Created from the viewpoints of families of children with autism

Julia was created from the views of parents who have a child with autism. Leslie Kimmelman who raised a child with autism was the author of the digital storybook "We're Amazing, 1, 2, 3! " This was the first digital book produced as part of the Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children initiative. She was not only the author of children's books, but also the senior editor of Sesame Street Magazine from 1998-2004. The puppeteer for Julia was Stacey Gordon who also has a child with autism. In addition to being a veteran puppeteer, she had some experience doing therapeutic work for people with autism. Their experience of raising a child with autism and their passion for promoting understanding toward autism in our society has played a vital part of the success of this initiative.

How Julia is portrayed in the picture book, We're Amazing, 1, 2, 3!

The DSM -V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition) criteria for diagnosing autism disorder is summarized by (1) Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts and (2) Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. The digital storybook "We're Amazing, 1, 2, 3! " captures these two characteristics of children with autism with numerous examples. In this story, Julia and Elmo have been friends since they were very young children. Elmo's friend Abby came to play with Elmo when he was playing with Julia. Elmo explained to Abby about Julia's autism. Below are the examples of autistic behavior of Julia that were described in the story. The support provided by Elmo, Abby, and other adults were included in parentheses.

  1. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts
    • Elmo looks at the tablet screen and says "Banana begins with the letter Z." Julia laughs and says loudly, "No it doesn't."
    • Julia does not respond to Abby's greeting. Abby sadly tells Elmo "Your friend doesn't like me." (Elmo explains to Abby "It's just hard for her to talk when she's swinging.")
    • Abby waits till Julia is done with the swing and asks "Can I play with you and Elmo?" But Julia just looks down. Abby is confused. (Elmo explains to Abby that Elmo's daddy told Elmo that Julia has autism, so she does things a little differently. He adds that sometimes he talks to Julia using fewer words and repeats the same things a few times.)
    • Abby asks Julia "can I play?" but Julia doesn't look at Abby. (Elmo explains that he sometimes has to wait a long time for Julia to answer. Elmo and Abby wait). Finally, Julia says "play with Abby and Elmo."
    • When Abby asks Julia "what should we play," Julia says, "Spy?" (Abby responds "I Spy? I love that game" and starts playing the game.)
    • When Abby asks Julia "what should we do next," Julia says, "Snack!" (The three friends go to Hooper's Store.)
  2. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. (including hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input)
    • Julia lines blocks up in a row. (Elmo says to Julia "Cool Wall")
    • Julia likes spinning the wheels around and around.
    • Julia finds a feather and flaps her hands around and around. Flapping is what Julia does when she's excited. (Elmo and Abby join in with her excitement. Elmo jumps up and down. Abby spins in a pirouette. Abby says "You're an expert at 'I spy,' Julia.")
    • At Hooper's store, Julia seems scared by the sounds of a blender. She claps her hands over her ears. (Elmo explains to Abby "Julia has really good ears. Sometimes she hears noises that Elmo doesn't notice, like the noise that the blender makes. She really doesn't like it." Alan told them "don't worry, guys. I'll turn the blender off"). Then Julia takes her hands away from her eyes.
    • When hot chocolate is served for Julia, she seems to be worried. She shakes her head. "No hot!" (Alan understands her sensitivity and gives her cold chocolate milk.)

Other notable characteristics of the picture book, We're Amazing, 1, 2, 3!

  1. Special talents and abilities
    Children with autism sometimes demonstrate exceptional abilities and talents. In this story, Julia is portrayed as someone who is good at singing and memorization.
    • Julia starts to sing. She has a pretty voice. She sounds loud and happy. (Abby says "Wow, your singing is really pretty, Julia.")
    • While Abby, Elmo, and Julia are singing together, Abby forgets the words. But Julia can remember the words to song after song. (The three new pals sing along for a long time.)
  2. Similarities with typically developing children
    Children with autism like to do many of the same things, which are enjoyed by typically developing children. In this story, such common interests between them are often highlighted.
    • Julia and Elmo both like to play with toy cars and trucks.
    • Julia and Elmo both like to play with blocks.
    • Julia and Elmo both like playing games on the tablet.
    • Julia and Elmo both love the swing. They even make up a swinging song.
    • Sometimes the interests of the child with autism are shared or extended by other children to create a sense of community.
    • Julia starts to sing. (Abby and Elmo join in).
    • "One, two, three," counts Julia. (Abby responds to Julia by saying "Yeah! One, two, three friends!" Elmo says "And, one, two, three milk mustaches.")

Has this effort, presented through the initiative Seeing Amazing in All Children, been successful in reducing stigma and bias toward autism? According to the evaluation report of the initiative, conducted by a team of researchers at Georgetown University and Children's National Health System, the materials presented on this website have achieved positive outcomes (Center for Autism Spectrum Disorder, 2017). This study used a sample of 698 parents of non-ASD children and 331 parents of ASD children. The participants were instructed to review the website of the Seeing Amazing in All Children, and one week later, they were asked to view the site again and to rate their website and resources. The preliminary findings suggest that the website had not only promoted knowledge and acceptance of children with autism for parents of non-ASD children, but that it had also increased positive changes in caregiving attitudes for parents of ASD children. The findings, however, should be carefully evaluated, because most of the parents of non-ASD children in this study were high SES and White parents.

Introduction of a new character with autism for a popular television program for young children is an innovative and timely effort, which has gained international recognition. Other countries, such as the UK, also recently introduced a character with autism on TV. Last fall the BBC started a 2D animation series called Pablo. It is a story of a 5-year-old boy on the autism spectrum who uses his creativity and magic crayons to invent an imaginary world full of animals. I hope to see more characters like Julia and Pablo on children's TV that will promote greater understanding and acceptance of autism.



report_porter_noriko_02.jpg Noriko Porter
Noriko Porter is an Instructor in the Department of Human Development at Washington State University. Before immigrating to the United States, she worked as an Associate Professor in the Early Childhood Education Department at Hokuriku Gakuin College in Japan. She received a Ph.D. from the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Missouri, Columbia in 2008. Her current research interests are cross-cultural parenting, autism, and early childhood development. In 2012 she received the research excellence award from the Japan Society of Research on Early Childhood Care and Education for a manuscript based on early intervention programs for her son who is a child with autism. Since June 2013, she has worked as a visiting scientist, receiving training from Dr. Katherine Loveland at the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences in the University of Texas Medical School, Houston. Recently, she has been awarded the Abe Fellowship for the 2015-2016 period.
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