Two-year-old Addison picks up a cloth bag of toys. Rifling through it, she pulls out a rubber snake, and shows it to Dr. Wendy Stone, director of the Research in Early Autism Detection and Intervention Lab at the University of Washington (UW). To most, the exchange may seem nothing out of the ordinary, but for Dr. Stone, it is noteworthy.
Accompanied by her mother, Dr. Jen Gerdts, also a UW faculty member, Addison is helping to demonstrate the Screening Tool for Autism in Toddlers (STAT), used to detect early signs of autism in toddlers. “She would hand me things, she would look at me while she handed things, she would engage in turn-taking, she showed a real enjoyment in social interactions and was able to share that,” says Dr. Stone. “Those verbal or non-verbal communicative and social behaviors are not seen consistently in a child with autism.”
Dr. Stone is one of over 250 members of the autism community consulted by Sesame Workshop for their “See Amazing in All Children” initiative. A digital series launched in the fall of 2015, it is aimed at de-stigmatizing the autism diagnosis by emphasizing the strengths all children share and providing resources for the autism community. As part of the initiative, Sesame Street created its first autistic character, a 4-year-old girl named Julia.
Since co-writing a comprehensive review of the state of the science of autism in 2008, Dr. Stone has been a primary consultant to Sesame Street through the multi-year process of creating Julia. One of their main challenges was highlighting the characteristics common to the autism diagnosis while avoiding generalizations about all children with autism.
In the United States, the rate of autism has increased to 1 in 68 children. Lack of understanding and awareness can contribute to children on the autistic spectrum being five times more likely to be bullied than their peers.
Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, Senior Vice President of Outreach and Education Practices at Sesame Workshop, emphasizes that certain qualities of the Julia character where chosen in order to provide an opportunity for educational storylines to be played out as Julia interacts with other Sesame Street characters such as Elmo and Abby.
“We made Julia a girl to indicate that autism can be represented in both boys and girls,” says Dr. Betancourt. “A girl, who was verbal to a limited degree because it allowed us to create interactions where her friends Elmo and Abby begin to understand how she communicates.“
In addition to Julia’s character, which premiered in the digital story book We’re Amazing 1,2,3 and the subsequent animation released in April, the Sesame Street and Autism website has a variety of multimedia resources, including several personal stories of families and fun videos that feature children interacting with muppets; it also provides a way for families and others to connect on social media via #seeamazing.
Since its inception, Sesame Street’s autism initiative has been an iterative one, with new materials being developed as a result of feedback from the greater community. Whether Julia will appear in the broadcast series as a muppet or a recurring character depends largely on feedback about how the initial two-dimensional characterizations will be received by the autism community and the community at large.
“We’re continuing to bring Julia more to life in different ways,” says Dr. Betancourt. “So what I would say is: stay tuned!”
Aileen Imperial is a multimedia and documentary producer with a commitment to thoughtful observation and engagement. Her work has aired nationally on the PBS American Masters series, the PBS NewsHour, and she received an Emmy® award in 2016 in the Arts feature category.More stories by Aileen Imperial