By David Rettew
March 22, 2017

Starting in April, viewers of the beloved television show Sesame Street will be introduced to a new character named Julia. She’s a four-year-old girl who has green eyes, red hair, and autism. Julia has existed for over a year now in print and online editions of the show, but gets her full television debut next month.

Featuring a character with autism on such an iconic show is an important milestone for autism awareness, yet it comes at a time when government-funded media is under attack. President Donald Trump has recommended that public funding be eliminated for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which transfers that money to outlets such as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR).

Sesame Street does not rely on direct funding from the CPB, and recently signed a contract with HBO to air new episodes first on the premium channel. However, the re-airing of episodes on PBS stations, especially in more rural areas, would be severely affected by these cuts, since most government funding to CPB helps sustain rural PBS and NPR stations. The many families in these regions unable to afford premium cable stations would likely be out of luck. Sadly, these are many of the same families who might benefit from shows like Sesame Street the most.

We should not deprive any children from the essential learning opportunities Sesame Street and other shows offer. Julia will help other kids better understand what autism actually looks like. She often repeats what other people say. She flaps her hands when excited and covers her ears when there are loud noises. These behaviors are typical of kids who meet the criteria for autism. The audience will be able to watch not only these behaviors, but the way others react to Julia, often starting with a little confusion but then quickly resolving to acceptance.

Perhaps more important than these aspects about Julia, however, are all of the parts of her that have nothing to do with autism. In this way, young viewers get to see not only what autism is, but what autism isn’t. Yes, Julia might not talk as much as some of the other characters or transition as easily into new activities, but children will also notice that she likes to sing and is very good at drawing—just like they are. Julia does have autism, but mainly she’s a kid, thinking kid things and doing kid stuff.

 

It’s been well documented that children can learn from television—in both good and bad ways. Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics mentions Sesame Street by name in its recommendations about screen time for young children. Precisely why children act the way they do will forever remain a mystery to scientists and befuddled parents alike. But we do know that one of the important processes for influencing children is modeling behaviors. Beyond rewards and punishments, kids are motivated to do what they see others doing.

The 60 Minutes segment on Julia’s introduction to the show features a clip in which Big Bird comments that Julia’s reluctance to talk to him made him think she didn’t like him. This misinterpretation of anxiety or social discomfort as disinterest is a frequent mistake that can fool even the wise Big Bird, and its depiction on Sesame Street provides a wonderful example to help kids learn how to interact with others who behave differently than most, regardless of the diagnosis or label that might be attached to them.

Julia’s debut couldn’t be better timed. Just as opponents of public television finally find a president willing to scrap it as expendable, the rest of us are reminded just how valuable this content is for our kids and our society.

David Rettew is a child psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine. He is the author of Child Psychiatry: New Thinking About the Boundaries Between Traits and Illness.

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