In the U.S., 1 in 68 children is diagnosed with autism. While the diagnosis is common, public understanding is not. And the stigma can unfortunately lead to discrimination, verbal abuse, or even physical violence. Sesame Street’s, new character, Julia – a sweet and curious four-year-old with autism — helps combat misconceptions and teaches children and families about acceptance.
“Bringing Julia to life as a Sesame Street Muppet is the centerpiece of all of our new materials to support families of children with autism,” said Sherrie Westin, EVP of Global Impact and Philanthropy at Sesame Workshop. “We are committed to continuing our efforts to promote understanding and acceptance of autism, as part of our mission of helping all children grow smarter, stronger, and kinder.”
The orange-haired, twinkly-eyed Julia sometimes does things differently, but that’s OK. Elmo and Abby help the other kids on Sesame Street understand that even if Julia doesn’t look you in the eye, it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t want to be your friend. Simply by making Julia “part of the gang,” she is already having a big impact.
The Sesame Street and Autism initiative hopes to help build bridges of understanding and grow connections between the autism community and typically-developing kids. In honor of Autism Awareness Month, here are three ways kids and adults alike can help everyone’s amazing shine through!
Explain Autism to Young Children. It’s okay for children to be curious about differences between themselves and others. We are all made differently and young children can take pride in the fact that no two people are exactly alike. When you talk to your child about autism, you might start by explaining how important our brains are. Your brain lets you understand everything you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. And the brain of a person with autism might work differently. That can make it hard for them to talk, listen, understand, play, and learn in the same way that others do.
Everyone with autism is different, in the same way all children have differences. Let your child know that sometimes people have ways besides talking to tell us what they know and want. Children with autism might put your hand on an object for help or repeat what you say or use sounds and pictures to let you know what they want. And actions like hand flapping, rocking, or repeating noises might mean a friend is having a hard time and is trying to calm herself down. Or, it may mean she’s excited.
Help Typically Developing Kids Reach Out. Everyone does better with love and support from family and friends. Here are some things you might suggest to kids without autism to help them include others:
- If you’re playing and you see a child who seems left out, include him. He may want to play but may not know how to ask. Tell him exactly what he can do to join the fun, and give him what he needs (“You can stack these blocks with us. Here’s a block.”).
- Keep trying. It may take time, and a few different tries on different days, to get to know your new friend. That’s okay. If she says no or needs space, you can stop trying that day, and try again another day.
- Be patient. Just because your friend is quiet or looking away doesn’t mean she is not listening or getting what you say. She may need more time to respond. It’s okay to repeat yourself or wait a bit.
- Tell a grown-up if you see someone being unkind to your friend.
Reach Out, Support, Connect. Adults who do not have children with autism may not always know “the right thing to say” to those who do. But the truth is, we all need support in one way or another! One of the most honest things we can say to someone whose experience is different than ours is, “I don’t know what you’re going through, but I’m always willing to listen.” Depending on your relationship, you might offer to organize a playdate, babysit, or even go to appointments for support. And don’t forget to offer any compliment you would give to a typically-developing child! Our similarities are always stronger than our differences.