Ah, yes – I am old enough to remember when Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, and all of Jim Henson’s other beloved Muppet creations were brand new, resplendent in their Technicolor glory on my aunt and uncle’s RCA color television set, the one big enough to be a bedroom dresser and, like one, encased in warm wood. However, even my younger readers would have also grown up on Sesame Street. In fact, young and very young audiences in more than 150 countries around the world watch this all-time classic show, nearly a half century after it first aired in 1969. Back in the year in which Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, Sesame Street was a champion of inclusion. And in that proud tradition, the highly respected show on October 21, 2015, launched “Sesame Street and Autism.” This far-reaching initiative has opened to considerable acclaim. The timing is also notable, in light of the astonishing new book NeuroTribes, which not only counters the stigma of autism, but also presents the case for full acceptance of people with this different kind of mind.
Through the catchy “The Amazing Song,” Sesame Street raises autism awareness and, and more important, acceptance of our differences. Christine Ferraro, who wrote the lyrics to the song, explains her connection to autism, in that she has a brother on the autism spectrum. This fact inspired her to feature siblings in the video and other instructional materials, as amazing children have amazing brothers and sisters, who may need a little reassurance. “Every kid is an original; we’re all one of a kind We’re all as different as can be, but in some important ways, we’re all the same – we can all be friends, because there’s so much we can share. We all have feelings We all need a friend who can understand.” Oh, by the way, one of the children conveys his messages via an alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) device, while another uses American Sign Language.
In the highlight reel, Julia says, “Lots of kids have autism.” And, she adds, “That means their brains just work a little differently.” Julia then introduces us to her “real-life” friend Nasaiah. She points out that his mom helps him learn how to play with other boys his age. Later on, we meet Jasmine, who with her parents, help her younger sister, Yesenia, with everyday self-care activities. And there is Louie’s father, who explains how his son made him “so much a better person, a better father.” Further on, the mom of another child says, “I just think he looks at the world in a very different way than we do. I don’t think it’s a bad way…. I think it’s amazing.” According to Sesame Street executive Sherrie Wilson, “Families with autistic children tend to gravitate toward digital content, which is why we created Julia digitally.”
In “Sesame Street and Autism. Family Time with Grover,” the beloved blue Muppet introduces us to Angie. Angie, like many other children, a very special way with her younger brothers. Although they are twins and both have autism, they are very different personalities. This is perhaps the best testament to the well-proven adage, “When you have met one person with autism, you have met a person with autism.”
Frank Campagna, the writer of the popular and highly respected blog “Autism Daddy,” is one of the video producers at Children’s Television Workshop. After the birth of his severely autistic son, he sought ways in which to spread autism awareness through the award-winning children’ show as well.
Christopher Jackson, one of the writers and artists of Sesame Street and Autism, has a son with autism. He talks of his “beautiful struggle.” His son’s loving nature inspired him to partake in this endeavor.
The Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) assisted in the creation of Sesame Street and Autism. In its policy statement, the advocacy organization states, “Sesame Street should be commended for reaching out to and focusing on the many voices of the autistic community… aimed at ending stigma and increasing understanding and inclusion of autistic children.”
Sesame Street and Autism offers resources for everyone – children with autism, their parents, and children and parents of children who do not have autism:
- Daily routine cards to assist nonverbal autistic children with their personal care
- Two fine electronic story books, We’re Amazing 1, 2, 3, featuring Elmo and Abby and their friend Julia, and Benny’s Story.
- Tips for children on being a friend
- A video for moms and dads of an autistic child, “Being a Supportive Parent.”
- Advice to help siblings better understand a brother of sister with autism
- Tips to help parents of an autistic child prepare for an outing.
- Ways in which all parents can explain autism to young children
- Reassurance for parents who care for their autistic children to take good care of themselves as well, in addition to that offered by Mr. Campagna.
- What all parents can and should say to parent with an autistic child.
Even children who are limited in their ability to express their thoughts and feelings verbally can sing along:
Sweepin’ the clouds away
On my way to where the air is sweet
Can you tell me how to get,
How to get to Sesame Street
Come and play
Friendly neighbors there
That’s where we meet….