Beloved children’s television program “Sesame Street” recently welcomed a new Muppet on the air. The character’s name is Julia, and she has autism. We sat down with Lark Huang-Storms, Ph.D., to get her take on Julia’s addition to the cast and what this means for families in the autism community.
As a mother and as a provider who cares for patients who have autism spectrum disorder, how important is it to you that “Sesame Street” has added Julia to their cast?
I think it’s wonderful. It means everything to parents to see their own children’s experiences represented positively and kindly. I’m delighted that “Sesame Street” has been progressive enough to do this. For decades, they’ve been incorporating characters in situations that may be difficult for kids (and grown-ups!) to understand. They’re great at doing it in a way preschoolers can relate to,which means they are sending a clear message of acceptance and neighborliness that everyone can understand.
I think Julia can help demystify autism for a lot of families, kids, teachers and even professionals. Seeing how Julia responds in her own ways may help viewers empathize and understand how to reach out to all kinds of kids, whether they experience ASD, or other developmental disabilities, or really any behaviors that seem different or confusing at first. Children are really responsive to adjusting their thinking and play when they are given some guidance.
How would you recommend parents and caregivers use this as a starting point for conversations about differences and inclusion?
Watching an episode together and discussing kids’ observations is a good place to start. Maybe Julia reminds them of someone in their class. The show can even be a good jumping-off point for parents and caregivers who want to talk to their kids’ teachers, babysitters or their extended families about things they may be experiencing in their own family. It’s important to note, of course, that all children are very different. There’s no way Julia could represent all kids experiencing ASD, but it sounds like she shares some similar traits that many autistic children do (like loving to jump or not responding to a greeting right away).
With Julia, “Sesame Street” seems to be presenting a very open approach to understanding a new friend. As always, they manage to do this in a way that’s child friendly and provides families with a natural starting point in talking to their kids about accepting differences and inviting all kinds of kids to play.
We want to speed up research and advance our understanding of autism to help improve lives. If you or your child has a professional diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and you live in the United States, we invite you to join SPARK for Autism, a landmark autism research project.