We all win when “Sesame Street” invites Muppet with autism to play

This month, which is National Autism Awareness Month, the first episodes of “Sesame Street” with Julia, a new Muppet who has autism, began airing on HBO. They’ll air on PBS next year.

Austin mom Catherine Bills and her daughter Ava, 6, who has autism, says, it “warms my heart” to see Julia in the show. Ava still watches “Sesame Street” because she has a 3-year-old brother, and when she saw teases introducing Julia, her mom says, she recognized that that girl painting was like her.

“PBS helps in so many ways,” Bills says. “They are showing kids that it’s OK to be different” and how to learn to play together.

In the episode, Big Bird gets frustrated with Julia when she doesn’t immediately respond to him, but Elmo explains that Julia does things differently. And we see that while the other kids are working on painting their pictures in simpler lines, Julia comes up with an amazing painting.

Bills hopes that for kids her son’s age, they’ll grow up with Julia. “Maybe in my son’s generation, it will be OK to be different.”

Autism now affects 1 in 68 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“For kids who have autism, it allows them to see themselves in the mainstream and maybe understand themselves,” says Dr. Jane Ripperger-Suhler, who works with autistic children and their families as the head of Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas’ child and adolescent psychiatry program.

Ripperger-Suhler says she explains to kids who have been given an autism diagnosis that “your brain is made differently; you experience the world differently. This place that you have trouble making friends, it’s because of the autism. We’re not going to change your brain, but we can help you recognize social cues, make friends and have relationships.”

“It’s about learning, learning how to do things in a different way,” she says. Sometimes medications are needed for anxiety or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or irritability that sometimes accompany autism, but mostly treating children with autism is about developing skills that work for them in the world around them.

What “Sesame Street” has done is making children with autism part of that world. “It’s an inclusion thing,” she says. “When you have a child off of the bell curve, it can be a very isolating, difficult road for parents.”

“Seeing a child included in something as ubiquitous and popular as ‘Sesame Street,’ — it’s my kid counts,” she says.

Ripperger-Suhler says often doctors are diagnosing kids on the lower-functioning end of the scale by age 2 because they now do more screening to look for it. Kids who are higher-functioning, like Julia would be considered, sometimes don’t get diagnosed until they go to school.

More and more research is being done about what causes autism and what therapies can be done. “We’re trying to understand what autism is,” she says. One theory is that people with autism pay more attention to objects than to people and that they see people as similar to objects, she says.

The National Institutes of Health has been doing research into whether a gluten-free, casein-free diet works. Like many disorders and diseases, scientists are also trying to narrow down which genes are affected and what kind of therapy could be done. Because autism has such a range, being able to identify type of autism based on your genes would be one scientific breakthrough that would make a difference in the type of treatment and inventions doctors would recommend, Ripperger-Suhler says.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Lifestyle

An Austin Public Library card now gets you the Kanopy movies service
An Austin Public Library card now gets you the Kanopy movies service

    As of today, Austin Public Library card holders have access to more than 30,000 films for free. The Austin Public Library has added access to the on-demand video platform called Kanopy. It is essentially a streaming service a bit like Netflix or Shudder, except one needs only an Austin library card to access it. There are no commercials...
Feel like brawling? This Austin fitness studio is here to help
Feel like brawling? This Austin fitness studio is here to help

The Barre Code Austin will host a Halloween-themed pool party on Oct. 28. Photo courtesy Barre Code Austin   Feel like brawling? The Barre Code Austin will host a Halloween-themed Brawl workout – the fitness studio’s signature kickboxing class – poolside at The Austin Motel, 1220 South Congress Avenue, starting at...
Check out these pumpkin carving events around Austin
Check out these pumpkin carving events around Austin

It’s October. Let’s carve some pumpkins, shall we? Here’s a round-up of pumpkin-carving events in the Austin area. Underwater Pumpkin Carving Contest at Dive Shop San Marcos. Entry is $5 per person with prizes for first and second place on Saturday, Oct. 21. Faux Pumpkin Carving Party at Hops and Grain. Want...
Plan your rainy weekend with these family events, Oct. 20-22
Plan your rainy weekend with these family events, Oct. 20-22

Brace for it. It’s going to rain this weekend, with an 80 percent chance on Friday and Sunday and a 50 percent change on Saturday. We know you want to head out to the pumpkin patches around Central Texas. Plan wisely, bring your rain gear, and hope that the weather forecasters get this one wrong. The good news: It won&rsquo...
More Stories