How Sesame Street Is Working to Prevent Bullying with a New Book About Autism
An estimated one in 59 children in the United States is on the autism spectrum, and research shows that children with autism are disproportionately affected by bullying. Sesame Workshop’s first-ever Kickstarter project aims to teach parents and children about autism in an effort to prevent bullying in schools.
“At the end of the day, all kids want the same things: to feel safe, happy, and loved.”
— Jeanette Betancourt, Ed. D.
Since it first aired in 1969, Sesame Street has been driven by its mission to help children grow “smarter, stronger, and kinder.” In 2017, Sesame Street welcomed Julia, a Muppet with autism, to its TV cast. Julia’s appearance on the beloved children’s show helped to raise autism awareness for a new audience of children and parents, who welcomed her with warmth and positivity. Now, Sesame Workshop—the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street — is using Kickstarter to raise funds to create a book that helps children and parents better understand autism and helps prevent bullying in schools.
We recently spoke to Jeanette Betancourt, Ed.D., the Senior Vice President for U.S. Social Impact at Sesame Workshop, to learn more about Julia, Sesame’s first-ever Kickstarter project, and how parents can help their children to better understand autism.
—Maura M. Lynch
What can you tell us about Julia?
Julia is a sweet and curious four-year–old girl with red hair and bright green eyes. She’s not as verbal as some of her friends, but she expresses herself in lots of other ways. She loves to paint and draw, and she has a beautiful singing voice. She doesn’t like loud noises or foods that are too hot. Her favorite toy is a stuffed rabbit named Fluffster. She lives with her mother, father, and big brother, and she’s often seen playing with Elmo, Abby Cadabby, Big Bird, and the rest of the gang on Sesame Street.
What were the conversations that led the Sesame Street team to welcome Julia to the show’s cast in 2017?
Sesame Street has a long history of tackling issues from a child’s perspective. For years, we heard from the autism community that children on the autism spectrum had deep connections to our characters, and they wanted more. We created Julia — first as a digital storybook character, and eventually as a Sesame Street Muppet — because we knew we could make a difference in a way that only Sesame can.
What’s involved in the creation of a new Muppet? Is there anything that stood out about the process of making Julia come to life?
There’s an expression in the autism community that if you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism. Julia’s autism is unique to her, but we made sure to reflect certain characteristics often associated with autism. For example, Julia has a simple haircut with bangs that don’t fall in her eyes, and she wears clothes that are soft and loose with no tags or buttons.
Our team worked to build the Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children initiative over five years, in consultation with over 250 organizations and experts within the autism community. Some of Julia’s many creators and contributors here at Sesame — including Leslie Kimmelman, the author of the We’re Amazing, 1, 2, 3! storybook, and Christine Ferraro, who wrote Julia’s debut Sesame Street episode — have family relationships [with people with autism] that helped them bring the character to life, making her even more special.
What are some of the reactions to Julia that you’ve heard from viewers and readers?
The response from viewers and readers has been beyond inspiring. Parents have written in to tell us that their autistic children are having more playdates thanks to Julia. Teachers have reported that their students are more inclusive in their play. Children and young adults with autism have sent letters, cards, and artwork. One mom wrote in to tell us that she used the first Julia storybook to explain to her five-year–old daughter that, like Julia, she also has autism. At the end of the story, her daughter responded, “So I’m amazing too, right?”
What inspired Sesame Workshop’s Kickstarter campaign and initiative to address bullying and autism? Why does now seem like the right time to address bullying in relation to autism?
Childhood bullying hurts everyone, but research has shown that children with autism are five times more likely to be bullied than their neurotypical peers. This is a big problem, because autism diagnoses are increasingly common — the latest estimate is one in 59 children in the U.S. We believe that by fostering empathy and compassion, and encouraging children to recognize and celebrate differences and similarities, we can help kids be better neighbors and friends.
Why did the team feel that a book was the correct format for this project?
Before she debuted on the broadcast show, Julia first appeared in a storybook. We like to create both digital and print storybooks as resources because they’re kid-friendly, simple to distribute and share, and easy to incorporate into daily routines. Reading stories together can also be a wonderful starting point for deeper conversations between kids and caregivers.
What do you think are the unique advantages of spreading this message via Sesame Street’s Muppets?
Kids relate to our characters in a powerful way — they’re furry, funny, and real. Big Bird, Elmo, and the rest of the gang represent kids’ points of view; they ask questions and share ideas that many kids have, but can’t always verbalize on their own.
What do you hope that the new Julia storybook will accomplish?
As with all of our autism resources, we hope that this storybook will start conversations and build understanding, ultimately helping to shift behaviors away from bullying and toward meaningful inclusion in schools and communities everywhere.
What are some messages parents can instill in their children to foster empathy and help them better understand autism?
Kindness, compassion, and appreciation for friends’ differences and similarities.
What do you hope to see for Julia in the future, in terms of new resources and stories that Sesame Workshop can create?
Julia will be at the heart of Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children for many years to come! We’re committed to serving the autism community, and to fighting the misinformation and isolating social stigmas around this increasingly common condition. The new resources we’ll create will help us reach even more kids and families in the autism community and beyond with the important message that every child has something unique and special to share. Yes, there can be significant differences between people with autism and their peers, but at the end of the day, all kids want the same things: to feel safe, happy, and loved.