It’s a challenging moment for the one in 68 children and millions of American adults who are on the autism spectrum. President Donald Trump and Republicans’ proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, with the American Health Care Act (AHCA) would eliminate the law’s Medicaid expansion, which serves many people with autism. The proposed cuts in federal funding for medical research in Trump’s recently released budget proposal would mean slower progress in finding better tools for screening and treating the condition. Other proposed federal budget cuts would trim education, housing, and job-training programs—programs people with autism disproportionately rely upon. Trump’s budget proposal also recommends ending public financial support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which helps distribute Sesame Street primarily to rural areas.
With so many public programs being considered for elimination, some may question the value of continued public funding for the distribution of programs such as Sesame Street. I could not disagree more. It’s more important than ever that the government support children with autism.
Children with autism are frequent targets of bullying and rejection by their peers, and that bullying carries a steep price tag. Bullying can have harmful health consequences, including anxiety, loneliness, depression, and even suicide. Those poor health effects often linger. Early experiences with bullying and rejection can lead to a lifetime marked by social isolation, poor health, and lack of employment. Poor health and lack of employment, in turn, contribute to the staggering cost of caring for Americans with autism, which amounts to some $236 billion each year.
Great progress has been made in providing inclusive education for children with autism. Thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, most children with autism now learn alongside their typically developing peers. However, being placed in an inclusive classroom does not guarantee that a child will be valued and accepted.
In fact, many children with disabilities say they feel lonely and unsafe, and that they do not belong. People with disabilities often struggle to be accepted by their peers. A study in the Research in Developmental Disabilities journal showed that exposure to people with disabilities increases positive attitudes toward them.
It’s hard to imagine a better ambassador for kids with autism than Big Bird. In the course of the show, this beloved, familiar figure can explain why Julia reacts differently to some situations. Watching Big Bird enjoy Julia as a unique friend may encourage Sesame Street’s young viewers to do the same when they meet a peer with autism in their own classrooms, which they almost certainly will. Julia also will demonstrate her exceptional drawing skills, so children watching the program will learn that people with autism often have unique talents.
Early exposure to people with special needs is especially important because attitudes are still evolving during early childhood. Positive attitudes introduced at a young age can have far-reaching effects later, when children grow up to be teammates in school sports programs, roommates at college, and employers.
Finally, adults also watch Sesame Street. Many parents may notice that their child acts a lot like Julia and wonder if their own child has autism. Raising awareness and reducing stigma are essential to parents’ willingness to seek early autism screening and treatment.
Early intervention can have a tremendous impact on children’s outcomes, changing their life course from one of long-term dependency to one of independence and productivity. On average, children with autism who receive early behavioral intervention gain about 17 IQ points, as well as better language and social skills. Those gains also translate into savings. On average, a child with autism who receives early intervention saves $1.6 million in lifetime healthcare costs. Through Julia, parents, grandparents, nannies, and other caretakers may learn about autism and be motivated to seek help early.
Sesame Street’s broad reach to families of young children has made it a powerful tool for promoting early education. Studies have shown that children who watched the show between the ages of three and five had larger vocabularies and higher grades later on, regardless of gender, family size, or parental education.
Now, with the introduction of Julia, the show’s broad reach can benefit a population that surely needs it by increasing awareness and acceptance of those on the autism spectrum. Can one muppet on a children’s show make a difference? Yes, it can.
Geraldine Dawson is director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development and president of the International Society for Autism Research.