Julia is a four-year-old with bright orange hair, big blue eyes and a sweet singing voice. She’s also the first Muppet with autism on Sesame Street’s iconic block. Relatable to kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Julia and her storyline will also help children not directly touched by autism understand how to form a real friendship with someone who’s a little different.
The message of the Monday April 10 debut episode, “Meet Julia,” is twofold: It’s intended to help viewers better understand autism, a developmental disorder that currently affects 1 in 68 children. And it also acknowledges that doing so isn’t always going to be easy. Even Muppets, famous for their friendliness, will face unique challenges in making friends with a kid like Julia—a kid, for that matter, like mine.
From kindergarten to grade six, my son, Jonah, who’s on the autism spectrum, attended school with kids who were not. I spent much of that seven-year stretch expecting him to be bullied or ostracized or both. Only he never was. In fact, when he graduated from elementary school he received an award for “Kindness to Others.” This was, I like to think, a testament to his particular brand of charm but also to the kindness he was, in turn, so often shown by others.
That said kindness doesn’t always equal understanding. During his first seven years in school, Jonah’s challenges making friends with his neurotypical classmates grew. This was especially difficult to witness because I knew that in his immediate circle of relatives, family friends, caregivers, therapists and other kids on the spectrum, Jonah’s relationships were deep and enduring. And they remain so.
As Jonah’s father, I often have the urge to explain my son to others outside of our circle. And I find myself wishing that more parents and kids would recognize the potential of a kid with autism—not just as someone to treat with compassion, but as someone with the potential to be a real friend.
I am happy for Julia and for the Muppets who clearly value her and are prepared to do some extra work to enjoy her friendship. And I’m happy for the families who will learn from their modelling. I hope that the presence of a character with autism on Sesame Street will help bridge the gap that can exist between kindness and understanding.
Here are a few tips, inspired by Sesame Street’s newest character (and my own observations as a dad), on how to teach your child to interact with kids on the autism spectrum. Talk them over, so when the time comes, your kid is ready to put them into action.
Kids on the autism spectrum are often left out of birthday parties or other activities outside of school. Encourage your child to invite them. I remember every birthday party Jonah was invited to not just because it was rare but because, around our house, it was a cause for celebration.
Often kids on the spectrum think and play differently, so you should talk about how that might look with your child. Sometimes, they do things more slowly. Some of their behaviours can also appear unusual. Teach your child how to begin engaging with parallel play, which is more or less what it sounds like: two kids playing side-by-side without much direct interaction.
Kids with autism sometimes have special requirements. They might need a parent or aide to help them interact with others. They can be sensitive to loud noises or uncomfortable with some of the body language that happens during a typical conversation. In Monday’s debut episode, for instance, Big Bird worries that Julia, who tends not to make eye contact, doesn’t like him. But he eventually learns, along with the other Muppets, to understand “the Julia sort of way.” Talk with your child about such differences to help them understand their new friend and adjust their expectations and ways of interacting, if need be.
Often, kids on the spectrum are fascinated by and can talk repetitively about a single topic—unicorns when Jonah was young. Teach your child to add to the conversation and redirect it whenever possible. For instance, have your child look up some new facts about unicorns as well as other cool mythical creatures.
Teach your child that kids on the spectrum love to laugh—they love puns and visual humour especially. However, kids with autism tend to take jokes literally. Sarcasm and teasing should be avoided at first. After a while, as kids get to know each other, they can try different jokes. For instance, on a recent April Fool’s Day—a Saturday—I told Jonah to get ready for school. He looked worried initially, then smirked, pointed at me and said, “Just kidding!”
Kids on the spectrum thrive on routine and structure. They like to know what’s happening next. Encourage children to respect their playmate with autism’s need for games to follow the same format. They should be extra mindful to give a friend with autism a say in playing new games or activities, to see whether the novelty seems like fun (or too much stress) for them.
Everyone has something they’re good at. Jonah, for instance, likes to read aloud or play his guitar. Encourage your kids to identify a classmate with some of the strengths that go along with being on the spectrum and give them a chance to use those strengths in activities together. That way, the child on the autism spectrum can take a role in games or activities that allows them to feel competent and independent.
Remember: kids on the spectrum are not all the same. That’s why it’s called a spectrum. There’s a lot of truth in the expression: “If you know one child with autism you know one child with autism.” So encourage your child to get to know and understand someone with autism as an individual. My guess is they’ll find their new friend funny, interesting and fun.