By Leonel Henriquez
On April 10, a new red-haired muppet named Julia made her debut on Sesame Street. Although she is just four years old, it took PBS and Sesame Street over five years to create her, in consultation with more than 250 organizations and experts. Julia, the result of these efforts, is autistic, and Sesame Street is hoping her presence on the show will increase awareness about autism. They also hope she will provide the opportunity to educate others on how to positively interact with friends and family who have been diagnosed with the disorder which, according to the Center for Disease Control, is 1 out of every 68 children in the United States.
Julia exhibits several traits typical of many autistic kids: she doesn’t like to shake hands, doesn’t always immediately respond to questions, waves her arms over her head when feeling anxious, and covers her ears when sounds are unpleasant to her.
Parents and educators are responding enthusiastically to Julia. Mabel Concepcion, a mother of three school age children, likes the new character. She thinks it is a great way to not only talk to your children about a sensitive topic but also provide them with an example on how to interact. “I think parents should talk to their kids about other kids with disabilities so that they are aware, so that they know how to act,” she said. “Kids don’t know how to act when they see something the first time.” She added that as a mother, “you want [your kids] to learn to get along with everyone.” Concepcion also believes parents can also learn from Julia. “It is just as important for one parent to recognize when another parent in a restaurant or movie might be dealing with a child that is having a difficult moment and offer help or support.”
Many share the hope that awareness will translate to inclusion, and believe that people with autism and other disabilities live somewhat segregated lives just because others just don’t know how to constructively interact with them. “Sesame Street is taking a step towards an inclusive culture for all students with disabilities,” said Jen Flinn-Knizeski, a special educator with the NYC Department of Education for ten years. “I love that the script explains autism as ‘what autism for Julia is,’ because it is a subtlety that is so important for our children to understand. For one child, the blender may really bother them, but for another child it may be the most soothing noise to them.”
The hope is that children will be able to recognize certain behaviors in their classmates and be able to interact accordingly. “I think exposing preschool students to Julia will help them understand more about how people communicate and play in different ways. They understand social cues from their friends and when given guidance, like Elmo gives guidance about Julia, they will understand how to be patient with children with autism. Indirectly, they may learn how to be patient with others and themselves,” said Flinn-Knizeski, a special educator trained in Therapeutic Crisis Intervention.
Elise Saldana, assistant chair of the Department of Early Childhood and Childhood Education at Lehman, expressed a similar opinion. “Yes, I think that young children are very capable of adapting and accepting the different behaviors, personalities, and situations that they see in each other, without prejudice, because they are not to presumptuous at this age,” she said. When asked if she thought if children ages four to five would be able to recognize similar traits in their classmates she replied, “I do think that young children can make associations and recognize similar behavior in others because they are open-minded and conscience regarding their world, and all that is in it and around it. When trying to mainstream or integrate children, I would think that it is best to highlight our similarities, rather than our differences.”
To learn more you can read Julia’s back story at www.sesamestreet.org.