Sesame Street’s Elmo has a new friend with autism

"People know the word autism, but I think they're still scared of interacting with a parent of a kid with autism, or inviting them for a play date," says Jeanette Betancourt. "This will provide an in-depth explanation in a Sesame Street way, which is very positive and accepting. I think it could be very, very powerful." (Credit: Michael Kappel/Flickr)

During its almost half-century on television, Sesame Street has tackled thorny issues such as divorce, death, food insecurity, and parents who go to prison.

The show is now turning its attention to autism, and its See Amazing in All Children initiative launched yesterday, October 21.

The project will promote broader awareness of autism, which affects an estimated one in 68 children in the US, says Wendy Stone, director of the University of Washington’s Research in Early Autism Detection and Intervention Lab.

“This puts autism in a normalized community context,” says Stone, who helped developed content for the initiative. “I think there will be more acceptance and recognition, and less fear of the unknown, if people understand more about what autism is.”

‘Children share lots of things’

The initiative will provide resources aimed at helping parents and caregivers of children with autism deal with everyday activities such as getting dressed and playing with other children. The effort includes a free iPad app, instructional cards, and digital and printed storybooks featuring Sesame Street Muppets Elmo and Abby Cadabby and a new character named Julia who has autism.

A social media campaign using the hashtag #seeamazing will encourage parents to share stories about their children’s abilities.

[pets bring kids with autism out of their shells]

“We’re trying to convey that children share lots of things,” says Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president for US social impact at Sesame Street. “They want to play together. They want to have friends. They want to be loved.

“There may be differences, but our hope is that we’re connecting children with autism with the general community and creating better understanding.”

No sugarcoating, no stereotypes

Stone wrote a background paper about autism in 2010 with Evon Batey Lee at Vanderbilt University that helped Sesame Street executives determine whether to proceed with the campaign. Later, Stone and other advisory board members from autism organizations and universities around the country reviewed materials while they were under development.

Stone’s role also involved making recommendations about what types of materials might be helpful and how to present autistic behaviors in an accurate way that neither stereotypes nor sugarcoats the realities of the disorder.

The idea of creating a live Muppet with autism was floated early on, Stone says, but she recommended against it. It would be difficult to portray autism correctly, she says, since the disorder is more often characterized by the absence of expected behaviors rather than the ones it is typically associated with, such as hand-flapping and rocking.

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“I thought there was a danger of it focusing more on the negative stereotypical behavior,” Stone says.

Instead, the Julia character was incorporated into the storybooks, where she talks with her friends Elmo and Abby about how certain noises bother her and how she might be paying attention even though she has difficulty making eye contact. The materials impressed Stone.

“They’re just so well done,” she says. “They explain things in a way that’s relatable to kids and adults and normalizes autism.”

Reducing stigma

Betancourt says the initiative grew out of demand from the autism community and from Sesame Street hearing repeatedly from parents that their children with autism felt a comforting connection with the show’s Muppets. But there were few resources available that emphasized the commonalities children with autism share with other children, Betancourt says, so Sesame Street decided to take on the issue.

The show’s producers conducted research with educators and service providers who work with children with autism, and with families who have children with autism as well as those with typically developing. They found that educators and service providers were hungry for information on how to better work with children with autism, Betancourt says, and that families with typically developing children often did not know how to approach parents of kids with autism.

“They felt uncomfortable because they didn’t know which questions to ask or how to connect,” she says.

The content will not yet air on the television show, but a Sesame Street spokesperson says it may in the future. In the meantime, Stone hopes the initiative will help reduce the stigma and isolation that affects many children with autism and their families.

“People know the word autism, but I think they’re still scared of interacting with a parent of a kid with autism, or inviting them for a play date,” she says. “This will provide an in-depth explanation in a Sesame Street way, which is very positive and accepting. I think it could be very, very powerful.”

Source: University of Washington