Sesame Street fans are being introduced to a new character named Julia; she has orange hair, green eyes, and autism.
It’s part of Sesame Street’s See Amazing in All Children initiative, which aims to break down barriers and reduce the stigma surrounding the increasingly prevalent condition.
“With the introduction of Julia, what we’re doing is introducing children to autism earlier,” said Laurie Mawlam, executive director of Autism Canada.
“I think this helps reduce the stigma of autism, and it’s promoting inclusion and acceptance.”
For now, Julia is part of an online initiative aimed at helping children between the ages of two and five better understand the condition. She is in a new storybook for kids, which can be found online and in a free app alongside other interactive tools and resources.
Mawlam said the character will help children recognize autism in others around them.
“Instead of being afraid or confused, they’ll have an example through Sesame Street on how to engage people on the spectrum,” said Mawlam.
“How to show acceptance, and initiate them to be involved in play, which leads to more inclusion.”
The rate of Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in Canada is largely estimated, with many studies identifying average prevalence in North America around one per cent; some recent U.S. figures found that 1 in 68 eight-year-old children have been identified with ASD.
A neurodevelopmental condition, ASD can present itself in a number of ways — avoiding eye contact, limited speech or none at all, not smiling, lack of interest in playing or interacting with others are just a few of the signs.
ASD is often first exhibited between 12-24 months, with boys as much as five times more likely to be diagnosed than girls.
Lucie Stephens, who also works with Autism Canada, was overjoyed when she heard about the new character.
“I have an 11-year-old son who is on the spectrum, and we watch Sesame Street every day,” said Stephens.
She said it would be “incredible” for him to hear the word autism on TV, “and be able to relate to that on some level.”
“He also has a little sister who loves Sesame Street; for her to see a character on TV who might be somewhat like her brother is incredible.”
Stephens is also encouraged by the wording of the social media campaign, which encourages the use of the hashtag #seeamazing on social media posts of all children.
“I love the wording, because truly our children are amazing, whether they are on the spectrum or not. And I like that they don’t differentiate that,” said Stephens.
“The fact that some children can’t speak, or choose not to speak or are different is just another way that makes them amazing.”
Stephens grew up with Sesame Street and said that as a parent she now realizes that the program has “always been teaching sociability, and how we relate to others” in subtle ways, not so obvious to young minds being impacted.
“You know, ‘one of these things is not like the other’ relates to not just shapes and objects, but it relates to people too. This has been going on for decades and we never even realized,” said Stephens.
On the initiative’s official website it says while almost all schools and universities have students with autism, public understanding needs vast improvement.
“The lack of understanding around the condition contributes to discrimination, verbal abuse, even physical violence,” the website states.
“See Amazing in All Children offers families ways to overcome common challenges and simplify everyday activities. At the same time, the project fosters an affirming narrative around autism for all families and kids.”