The Importance of Representing Autism on “Sesame Street”

Whenever a popular, long-running television show announces a major casting change, it sparks conversation. Whether an audience-favorite is departing, or a buzzworthy addition is being made, viewers keenly follow every casting shakeup. Recently, a television show, nearing its 50th anniversary and over 150 Emmys to its name, got the whole world talking. That show was “Sesame Street”.

“Sesame Street” is set to add Julia, a 4-year-old muppet with autism, to its cast. The announcement reiterates the commitment to a larger educational effort by the nonprofit organization that produces “Sesame Street”, Sesame Workshop. The announcement came with a series of YouTube videos which provided glimpses of the character’s personality and interests. In one video, Julia demonstrates her love of singing by performing “Sunny Days” with fellow cast member Abby Cadabby. Julia will officially join the cast in April.

“Sesame Street” first introduced Julia in a digital storybook in October 2015. At the time, Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s vice president of outreach and educational practices, openly acknowledged the importance of the character. “We wanted to demonstrate some of the characteristics of autism in a positive way,” Betancourt said, adding that breaking down some of the “myths and misconceptions” around the disorder were a priority (Dell’Antonia, 2017).

The addition of Julia to “Sesame Street” brings up the importance of representation in the entertainment industry. Julia is not only the first new muppet to join the cast in nearly a decade, she is also the first muppet to have autism. The inclusion of an autistic muppet gives representation to the millions of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) around the world. For the first time, autistic “Sesame Street” viewers will be able to see more of themselves in a character, an incredibly significant development.

For children with ASD, Julia will provide the opportunity to represent their ideals, struggles, and interests. For children not familiar with the disorder, Julia serves as an excellent educational opportunity. By viewing a muppet with ASD on “Sesame Street”, these children will see that while Julia has autism, they can still relate to her. The exposure to a television character that is different than those around her will hopefully demonstrate to children that when they encounter a peer like Julia, they should embrace her as they would anyone else.

It is crucial that children learn to be welcoming and understanding of others who live with ASD or other disorders. One of the most common struggles those diagnosed with ASD experience are the difficulties of picking up social cues, presenting a unique challenge for children beginning to interact with peers for the first time. A 2012 study focused on bullying and children with ASD found that 63% of children diagnosed with the disorder had been bullied. Such a statistic supports the opinion that more education is needed in order to promote acceptance among young people.

That is why the announcement of Julia joining “Sesame Street” is a commendable act. By providing young children the opportunity to watch a character that has autism, “Sesame Street” is living up to its reputation as a leading educational program. Exposure is the introductory step in helping children understand that not everyone looks, sounds, or acts as they do. The more exposure to autism, even through a television program, allows young people the chance to form a better understanding of the disorder.

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