Sesame Street's producers are hoping fans who came to know and love Elmo's high-pitched giggles and overall goofiness will also love his newest buddy, a girl with autism—and that their friendship will foster acceptance of real kids with the disorder.
Meet Julia. With her bright-orange hair and wide green eyes, Julia fits right in with the rest of the Muppets living in the fictional New York City borough. She has autism, but that doesn’t stop her from playing and having friends.
Julia is part of the new initiative "Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children," launched on Wednesday. Its website offers tips for children learning to play together, advice for parents of children with autism, and tips on how to talk and ask questions about autism. All of the content, including a catchy new tune called “The Amazing Song” and a digital storybook about Elmo and Julia’s first adventure, is free through the website.
Instead of focusing on the differences between Elmo and Julia, the book highlights all that they have in common. Julia may have trouble making eye contact, dislike loud noises, and flap her arms when she’s excited, but she likes playing with blocks and on the swings just like Elmo. All the characteristics presented in Julia are common for a child on the autism spectrum, and in Julia’s case, she’s able to happily play with Elmo.
However, many kids with autism don’t have understanding friends like Elmo. Approximately one in every 68 children born in the United States is on the autism spectrum, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children with autism are five times more likely to experience bullying than their peers, according to Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the series. Roughly 12 percent of children with autism had never been invited to a birthday party, 6 percent were regularly picked last for teams, and 3 percent ate lunch alone every day, according to the National Autism Association.
The executives at Sesame Workshop are hoping Julia and Elmo’s relationship can put a dent in bullying from an early age.
"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,” Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president of U.S. social impact, told People. “It makes children more comfortable and therefore more inclusive."
Sesame Street has long been considered a gold standard in children’s television, teaching kids their ABCs and 1, 2, 3s on a daily basis.
Watching the public access education show can help children succeed in school, according to a study released this summer by Wellesley College and the University of Maryland. With the addition of Julia, the executives over at Sesame Workshop are hoping to foster academic and emotional intelligence in their rapt audience.