Dell Children’s expert weighs in on Sesame Street’s newest Muppet

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New kid on the block, Julia, building autism awareness

Just in time for autism awareness month, Sesame Workshop is introducing a new friend to its program for kids across the world.

Julia is a young Muppet with red hair who loves to sing and carries a stuffed bunny—she’s also Sesame Street’s first autistic character, created to build awareness and understanding among kids and families. 

“There’s a lot of potential for Julia to create inclusion among children with autism,” said Jane Ripperger-Suhler, MD, who works with autistic patients and their families at Ascension’s Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas. She leads the hospital’s child and adolescent psychiatry program.

Dell Children’s and Seton are part of part of Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system.

Sesame Workshop also added educational materials about autism, available online in English and in Spanish.

“Meet Julia” will debut April 10 on HBO and PBS kids.

Fast facts about autism

Ripperger-Suhler explains that autism is a genetic, neurodevelopmental disorder. Children who have it perceive the social world differently than those who don’t.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • One in 68 children has autism spectrum disorder, ASD[1]
  • Autism is present in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups
  • Boys are four times more likely to have autism than girls

Ripperger-Suhler says one challenge many parents face is getting their child diagnosed early in life. She says it’s often difficult to distinguish normal from autistic development in the early stages of life and especially in the case of high-functioning children with ASD.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, AAP, recommends all children be screened for autism spectrum disorder at ages 18 and 24 months.

Busting Myths

“I think it’s great Sesame Street has created Julia, especially if they’re using facts and dispelling myths about autism,” Ripperger-Suhler said.

She believes supporting healthy autism interventions is important, while rejecting myths, such as vaccines causing autism. Researchers have determined that vaccines do not cause autism[2].

Ripperger-Suhler says another myth is that autism can be cured.

“Interventions can help autistic children lead happy and productive lives, but there is currently no cure,” she said.

Additionally, she says diets and nutritional supplements do not alter the brain substantially and there is not one single cause for all autism.

What can we learn from a Muppet?

Ripperger-Suhler hopes Julia will give children and families a venue for generating understanding and acceptance in themselves and others.

“This awareness is especially meaningful given the high prevalence of autism and the importance of inclusion among children,” she said.

Dell Children’s specialists see children with autism and other mental and behavioral health disorders.

Services will expand when a new mental health unit at Dell Children’s is expected to be complete in spring of 2018.

Thanks to a generous challenge gift from Nyle Maxwell and his family, any community donations toward the project will be matched dollar-for-dollar up to $3 million.

Learn more about the new unit and how to donate.

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html

[2] https://www.aap.org/en-us/documents/immunization_vaccine_studies.pdf