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UW professor helps shape new Sesame Street character with autism

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Wendy Stone

Wendy Stone recently contributed to the creation of Sesame Street's newest addition, Julia, Elmo and Abby's friend with Autism.

Sesame Street recently welcomed a new character into its storybooks, a young girl named Julia who has autism. Wendy Stone, professor of psychology and director of UW’s Research in Early Autism Detection and Intervention Lab, was a consultant for developing and accurately portraying Julia.

“Autism is here, it’s not going anywhere,” said Raphael Bernier, director of the Seattle Children’s Autism Center. “We’ve got a community of advocates and that’s great, but I think the best place to start with awareness is to teach our youngsters about autism, which Sesame Street is doing in a very natural way.”

Jennifer Dibona, a Queen Anne mother whose 6-year-old son Miles has autism, explained that when she was growing up, people with special needs were kept completely separate from the other children at school. She was told not to stare, not to interrupt, and not ask questions about this community because it was rude.

“We were told it was being polite to kind of ignore that population so we grew up not really knowing how to act around people with special needs,” Dibona said. “Then I had a kid with very specific needs and I didn’t know how to interact with him, I didn’t know how the world was going to accept him.”

Sesame Street wanted to join the conversation about raising autism awareness, and came up with the idea of featuring a character with autism. In 2008, when Stone was working at Vanderbilt University, Sesame Street asked her to write about how the show could promote acceptance and awareness of autism.

Over the next seven years, Sesame Street continued to consult Stone and other experts about various aspects of the character. One concern was whether or not Julia should be a Muppet. Stone advised against it, worried that autism would be too difficult to portray and would reaffirm stereotypes about it. She thought it might over-emphasize the outward symptoms, ignoring other behaviors that are typical of all children.

“The behaviors that are most likely to be represented are the things that you see, hand-flapping or spinning,” Stone said. “I didn’t want that to happen because children with autism also have behaviors that are harder to represent: The moments of connection and the caring about other people, wanting friends, and other social behaviors that may not appear as consistently but also aren’t entirely absent.”

After years of consultation, one of Sesame Street’s end results was a children’s book called “We’re Amazing, 1, 2, 3,” which tells the story of Julia having a playdate with Elmo and Abby. At first, Abby thinks Julia doesn’t like her because Julia doesn’t respond or make eye contact when she says “hello,” but Elmo explains that sometimes Julia does things differently, like using fewer words, or reacting strongly to loud noises. The story ends with the three friends laughing together and drinking hot chocolate. 

“I think their array of products is fantastic,” Stone said. “It has this positive reframe that makes children with autism not seem as different, but makes one think ‘you know I feel that way too, I do things like that too.’”

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The website also provides educational materials pertaining to autism.

“I get a lot of parents who ask ‘what do I tell my kid about Miles before I come over?’” Dibona said. “I’m always at a loss for what to say; it’s hard for a young kid to understand. [These resources] are very helpful because I can say ‘there’s this great video on Sesame Street about playdates with kids with autism, why don’t I send you the link?’”

Dibona hopes this Sesame Street character will help build a more inclusive society for people with special needs. She thinks that if more children interact with her son he will have more opportunities as he grows up.

“What we know about autism is that there are many difficulties in social interaction and the only way we get better is to practice,” Bernier said. “The more we have an opportunity to integrate kids with autism into their peer group … the more they’re going to improve skills.”

Stone sees this initiative as an opportunity for teaching and learning.

“Many families know the word autism and it scares them,” Stone said. “But many people still don’t really understand what it is. … I think having characters with autism that are presented without sugar-coating, but with a positive frame of ‘we are all different and we are all the same’ is the most powerful message that you can give.”

 

Reach reporter Megan Herndon at news@dailyuw.comTwitter @megherndon

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