This week, 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.”
“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 irritablity 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.
Autism now affects 1 in 68 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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.