What Sesame Street’s First Autistic Muppet Teaches Kids

Mar 22, 2017

Sesame Street has a new neighbor – the long-running show is introducing the very first autistic Muppet, Julia, who is joining the show in a few weeks.

Sesame Street (now known as Sesame Workshop) has long been lauded for its ability to tackle big issues with a message of inclusion. With the recent announcement of Julia’s addition, kids will now be exposed to autistic characteristics long before they may meet them face-to-face in a schoolyard setting.

Why Is There a Need for Julia?

"My hope is that by 'Sesame Street' bringing a character with autism, it will teach children from an early age about being inclusive rather than being exclusive," says Marie Sly, who is also a director at Autism Support of Kent County.

Teaching non-autistic children about social triggers for autistic kids can help ease the classroom experience for everyone.

Exposure to new stimuli and social triggers can be overwhelming for autistic children, their siblings, peers and even their teachers. At home, our neurotypical children read books to give them a greater understanding of how their siblings interact and communicate. However, many children without autistic siblings do not have this opportunity to learn about autism in their own home – until now. By providing tools and increasing understanding from a young age, Sesame Street viewers can now learn communication styles to interact better with autistic children.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD effects every racial, ethnic and socioeconomic group. It’s reported that 1 in 68 children is identified on the spectrum. Children on the autism spectrum can present with symptoms that make social interactions very difficult. They often have difficulty:

  • With language, both expressing verbally and understanding emotions
  • Understanding social cues and showing empathy
  • Expressing needs, resulting in tantrums or outbursts
  • Adapting when routines change
  • Reacting to the way things smell, taste, look, feel, or sound

How Muppets Can Help

When Big Bird asks Julia a question, she doesn’t respond. To a peer in the classroom, Julia is seen as rude or mean – when in fact, Julia responds to other cues instead. Just because she doesn’t answer Big Bird doesn’t mean she doesn’t enjoy playing or interacting with her friends – she just does it in a different way. Sesame Street is teaching children to begin seeing this with empathy, as opposed to judgement.

The most important thing Julia is doing is starting a conversation in our homes.

Teaching children to “play nice” is taken to a new level, because kids are more receptive to hearing this message from Elmo and Snuffalupagus. "I hope they make it mainstream and help kids understand that everyone is different -- to love someone for who they are and not laugh or make fun of them for being different,” explains Sly.

Not All Autism Is Created Equal

Autism is called a spectrum disorder because nearly every child’s expression can be unique. It is more of a constellation of symptoms. This makes it incredibly challenging for Sesame Street to create the first autistic character. If done incorrectly, a stigma is created. Autism often conjures images of either “Rain Man” (brilliantly played by Dustin Hoffman), or brilliant savants, capable of mentally calculating Pi to thousands of digits. Hint: For a spectacular look inside the world of an autistic mind, I highly recommend checking out the book Born on a Blue Day.

So how do you prepare children to be open-minded and accepting when confronted with an autistic peer? Sesame Street’s goal is to focus on normalizing behaviors and break the stigma associated with autism. Many kids watching Sesame Street might not understand the subtle differences between actions and reactions, but teaching them that “different” isn’t a bad thing is a great first step to take.

Increasing social acceptance is key, especially considering that autistic children are more likely to be bullied in school situations. Their interactions in social settings can expose them to ridicule or bullying and cause them to further retreat from social interactions – mainly, alone in front of screens.

Screen Time Suggestions

Screens are a favorite place for autistic children to retreat. Their need to escape from overwhelming situations can send them searching for alone time with their TV, phone, tablet or computer. While this can give a welcome relief from tantrums, it must be used wisely. Screen time can be followed by an increased intensity in tantrums and outbursts, creating a vicious cycle where screens are a retreat and overstimulation contributes to increased behaviors.

Children on the spectrum are more likely to become addicted to technology, with screen time acting like a stimulant, according to Victoria L. Dunkley, M.D.’s article, Autism and Screen Time: Special Brains, Special Risks. “When parents really grasp the science of what happens in the brain when children interact with screen devices—and understand how these things specifically impact autism—they are much better able to restrict screens appropriately and are less swayed by social pressures.”

As my family has learned, taking away stimuli can cause an outburst initially, but by setting limits and enforcing rigid rules, they learn that when screen time is over, it’s over. Of course, it’s easier when technology itself enforces these rules. As a parent of two autistic boys and two neurotypical girls, I’ve learned how important it is for parental control software to implement the time limits for our family. My wife and I have learned that this is the easiest way to get a better reaction from all of our kids.

Allow your child the ability to use their phone, tablet, or computer – but set time limits using parental control software and also consider the use of a content filter.  While exposure to inappropriate online content is a terrible shattering of innocence for any young child, the autistic mind is specifically at risk due to its propensity to fixate on a single topic. So be mindful of using appropriate content filtering for your special child.

Parenting is a journey and one that can be difficult at times. The use of appropriate tools can enhance the journey – and benefits the entire family, by reducing stress and enjoying the good times. With digital tools like parental controls and content filtering in place, your child is free to watch all of their favorite shows, like Sesame Street, in safe, parent-approved doses.