When Sesame Street was launched in the 60’s, many wondered just what children could learn from a TV show. Studies were conducted in the first two years to assess if children could learn literacy, number skills, and various new concepts by parking their rears in front of a television set.
They did. Since then, Sesame Street has led the way, introducing children to new ideas and people, guiding them carefully into new worlds.
The key message behind the show has always been to accept those who are different. And how did they do that? They taught by example, of course.
The colour of someone’s skin? Not an issue. The Count is purple, Ernie’s orange, Cookie Monster is blue, and the most popular guy on the block is a seven foot yellow bird. They’ve had friends who are deaf, in a wheelchair, or live in a garbage can. And they’ve touched on cultures and customs from around the world.
Tougher issues have also been tackled. Big Bird taught kids about death when my beloved Mr. Hooper passed away. Lily showed that some families go to bed hungry. Aristotle explained how a blind person uses braille to read. And Snuffleupagus went through his parents’ divorce.
The neighbourhood is constantly changing. And this year’s newest friend isn’t obviously different. In fact, Julia looks just like any other child. But that’s the point.
Julia has autism. So while she may look like any other kid, she doesn’t always act the same. She ignores people, yells, and sometimes makes wild movements – which upsets some of the others. Because people who look the same but act differently are the hardest to accept at any age.
Julia was developed over three years and involved a puppeteer who has an autistic child. The difficulty was that autism is a spectrum disorder. No two children will be alike in how it affects them. So every step was taken with the utmost care and respect. Even the puppet, itself, was created differently from the rest. It has two sets of arms to allow for some of the physical movements that autistic children might exhibit.
And the unique lessons that Julia will bring to the show are priceless. That’s why Sesame Street is still a powerful tool. Kids can experience different life situations and discuss the why’s and how’s of it at home before stepping out into the world.
A recent article condemned The Disney Channel for stretching the definition of “Children’s Programming” for the sake of ratings. Studies have shown that exposing children to information beyond their maturity level damages their emotional and psychological development. So parents have always watched carefully when someone new moved into Sesame Street.
Fortunately, despite necessary changes in order to stay relevant, Sesame Street has never lost touch with its true audience: the kids. And with the introduction of Julia, they can sing about “the people in your neighbourhood” with as much joy today, as they did when I was a child.