17 Jun Sesame Street revisited: Has their approach to autism made a difference?
Last year, EmbraceAbility published a piece expressing our admiration for Sesame Street and their accommodations for people with autism. First, the show introduced Julia, a muppet character with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Julia represented a significant step forward for disability and diversity in children’s media. She was considered an important figure for education and awareness-raising among the general viewership, as well as being an ambassador for the inclusion of children with ASD. The character paved the way for various other efforts to facilitate the inclusion of children with autism in Sesame Street’s attractions and other platforms. 4 years since Julia’s first appearance on the show, has anything changed? Today we look at ways in which Sesame Street’s efforts have made a difference to the lives of children with ASD.
‘See Amazing in All Children’
Alongside the introduction of its first autistic character in 2015, Sesame Street debuted its online autism initiative called ‘See Amazing in All Children’. A collection of online workshops and materials, it included information about autism, an electronic storybook featuring Julia, videos, and a range of strategies aimed at helping children with activities of daily living (ADLs) with useful resources.
A 2019 study carried out by the National Autistic Society surveyed over 1,000 parents of children aged 6 and below before and after viewing Sesame Street’s ‘See Amazing’ initiative and its materials. The survey group contained parents of children with ASD and those without. They were asked about their knowledge of autism, acceptance and inclusion of those with the condition, and about their level of parenting confidence and stress related to their child’s behaviour.
According to researchers:
“Following exposure, parents of non-autistic children showed small but significant increases in knowledge of autism and, like parents of autistic children, greater acceptance of autistic children. Parents of autistic children reported less strain, increased parenting competence, and more hope about involving their child in their community. That the See Amazing materials invoked positive changes in the general parent community and in parents of autistic children suggests that See Amazing materials have the potential to be an effective resource to increase acceptance and community inclusion, although limitations of self-selection, dropout rate, and lack of control group constrain interpretation.”
While an assessment of broad societal behaviour change will require further study, the results seen here are encouraging. It is clear that Sesame Street understands , and has expanded its broad approach to inclusion.
Last year the Sesame Street theme park, Sesame Place, received the world’s first autism certification. Providing quiet rooms for children and a sensory guide to help parents plan their visits, Sesame Street has entrusted its ambassadorial role in ASD accessibility to its employees through extensive training. It was this groundbreaking staff training on autism sensitivity and awareness that earned Sesame Place the first award of this kind. Following this example, other parks have moved to adapt their facilities to accommodate guests with autism.
Why are these efforts so important?
According to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, mental health difficulties are highly prevalent in individuals on the autism spectrum. The survey, encompassing 111 people with ASD, examined symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress next to their experiences of autism acceptance. Analyses showed that the more a person with autism felt accepted by others and in social settings, the lower their levels of stress and depression. The study makes particular note of the damaging effects of ‘social camouflaging’; the less a person feels the need to hide their autism symptoms around people, the lower their likelihood of suffering stress and depression.
What is social camouflaging?
Social camouflaging is defined as the use of strategies by autistic people to minimise the visibility of their autism during social situations.
The links between low social acceptance and mental health difficulties reveal just how important it is for industry leaders and platforms to speak openly about issues of ASD. For me, Sesame Street’s extensive efforts highlight an important but simple point about promoting social inclusion – access and exposure to new ideas and educational materials regarding ASD, and disability generally, for people of all ages is a vital precursor to change and acceptance. If key influencers and entertainment leaders, like Sesame Street, continue to make changes to their training, attraction and staff structures, and provide accessible information for people of all ages – awareness, sensitivity and positive sentiment will swell. The example has been set and the results look good; who will be next to champion inclusion and acceptance?
Take a look at Sesame Street’s online resources at autism.sesamestreet.org/
By Oliver King