Choosing an appropriate, educational television show for your children has become a reality in modern parenting. Time and time again, “Sesame Street” has proven to be the best choice for their commitment to inclusivity.
On April 10, the show will introduce its newest character Julia, a 4-year-old Muppet with yellow skin, orange hair and Autism Spectrum Disorder. According to Autism Speaks, ASD is a genetic and environmentally-influenced disorder characterized by challenges with social skills, non-verbal communication and repetitive behaviors.
It is clarified that Julia has autism when a hurt Big Bird asks why she will not shake his hand. Characters are careful to explain that autism affects everyone differently, and in Julia’s case, it takes her a little longer to take in the environment around her. She is then quickly accepted by her new friends at Sesame Street.
Since 1969, the show has gone beyond simply teaching children ABCs and 123s, tackling sensitive subjects such as racism, divorce and the events of 9/11. Throughout the years, “Sesame Street” has featured characters whose parents are incarcerated and discussed the topics of death, racism, bullying, adoption and breastfeeding.
The show is watched worldwide and tailors characters to fit the demographics and pressing issues of different countries. For example, the South African version introduced in 2003 the first HIV-positive character, Kami. In 2016, Afghanistan’s version of the show introduced Muppet Zarin, who teaches physical and social well-being to Afghan girls.
The American version of the show has a history of featuring characters that teach children important lessons on ableism, which is discrimination against people with disabilities. In 1972, character Linda the Librarian, played by deaf actress Linda Bove, taught children about deaf culture and American Sign Language. In the 1970s, Jason Kingsley helped viewers understand Down-Syndrome. From 1993 to 2001, Tarah Schaeffer, a 9-year-old with osteogenesis imperfecta, taught children about staying active while in a wheelchair.
Although it is wonderful that the show has featured these characters, it is about time a permanent Muppet teaches these lessons in a fun, yet sensitive way. Julia’s character was so well received in the autism community that the show decided to work with autism advocacy groups to bring Julia to life and develop her into a character that is representative and sensitive.
Working with autism advocacy groups goes beyond what is expected of a television show. “Sesame Street” has even developed a page on their website dedicated to educating families on autism, with easy to read articles such as “Being a Friend.” The article teaches the importance of including friends with autism, patience and how to tell an adult if someone is being unkind to them. The steps “Sesame Street” has taken to be inclusive are commendable.
Autism Spectrum Disorder has gone from affecting 1 in 150 children in 2000 to 1 in 68 children in 2012, according to the Center for Disease Control. As those affected by the disorder grow in numbers, it is important that ASD is represented in mainstream media. Now, with the help of “Sesame Street,” newer generations will grow up more sensitive to autism.
It is imperative that children’s shows follow the example “Sesame Street” set to teach school-age children about interacting with people who have ASD, so everyone can feel comfortable and respected in a learning environment. “Sesame Street” has taken the right step toward inclusion, representation and diversity that we can expect from the beloved show.