Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Can TV Reduce Stigma? Ask Julia, the New Muppet on 'Sesame Street'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Can TV Reduce Stigma? Ask Julia, the New Muppet on 'Sesame Street'

Article excerpt

The newest kid on Sesame Street is "Julia," a muppet with bright orange hair and big green eyes.

She's also part of the program's newest effort to foster understanding and reduce stigma. That's because "Julia" is a muppet diagnosed with autism.

The new character, an eager learner who "does things a little differently," according to the program, is part of the "Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children" initiative, an educational and awareness campaign to destigmatize autism, reduce bullying, and show how autistic kids are the same as other children.

Here's how the Sesame Street describes the challenge:

The lack of understanding around the condition contributes to discrimination, verbal abuse, even physical violence. A recent study reveals that children with autism are five times more likely to be bullied than their peers--treatment no child should endure. While the differences between people with autism and their peers may seem significant, children share something far more important: unique qualities and talents that make the world an interesting place."This project is an extension of the belief we've always promoted: 'We are all different, but all the same,' says Sherrie Westin, executive vice president of global impact and philanthropy at Sesame Workshop, said in a statement.

Since its debut in 1969, Sesame Street has been at the forefront of social activism, using its cast of characters and preschool- friendly storylines to showcase diversity (including characters with Down Syndrome and even an HIV-positive muppet in its South African show) and tackle challenging topics like death, homelessness, discrimination, and incarceration.

And experts say its most recent inclusion of an autistic character will go a long way toward reducing stigma and increasing acceptance.

"Research has shown that one of the most effective ways to reduce stereotyping and prejudice is to interact with others who are different from you," says Naomi Ekas, a developmental psychologist at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, who also runs the university's Families, Autism and Child Emotion Studies Laboratory. "Although children will not be interacting directly with Julia, they will be witnessing other characters interacting with her."

The initiative, geared to kids ages 2 to 5, includes an online storybook, "We're Amazing, 1, 2, 3! …

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