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Autism and Culture Roundup: Sesame Street, Video Games and The A Word

When it comes to the staples of childhood, Sesame Street and video games are regularly favorites of most children’s activities. In the past week, both platforms have made exciting announcements that point to a greater awareness about autism in our culture. In addition, this was also an exciting week for autism in television, with two new additions to the programming schedule that places autism at the center of their narratives.

Firstly, that perennial staple of childhood, Sesame Street, has announced that the newest addition to the show’s cast is a young girl named Julia. What makes Julia different from other past cast members is that she lives with autism.

“Children with autism are five times more likely to get bullied,” senior vice president of U.S. social impact, Dr. Jeanette Betancourt stated. “Our goal is to bring forth what all children share in common, not their differences.”

However, some autism advocates have been quick to criticize the character due to the fact that she is not necessarily representative of the majority of young children with autism, who are overwhelmingly male. However, Sherrie Westin, the executive vice president of Sesame Street, acknowledged this is a statement, saying, “We made sure she was a girl namely because autism is seen so much more often in boys. We wanted to make it clear that girls can be on the spectrum, too…We’re trying to eliminate misconceptions, and a lot of people think that only boys have autism.”

Elsewhere, a team at the University of Texas at Galveston recently pioneered a new method to improve the fitness of children living with autism through the use of video games, which are a staple of many houses, both those with and without a member with autism. The team is investigating what they have termed “exergaming,” which refers to an increasing number of video games that take physical activity as their objective.

The study looked at Makoto Arena, a $15,000 “therapy device” that has a prohibitive price tag, but might also have a greater underlying value. As the team reported, “Through the use of the exergame called the Makoto Arena, researchers showed improvement in response speed, executive function, and motor skills among children with ASD.” We will continue to follow this story and report on the next round of funding, which the team hopes will result in identifying creative and effective therapies for children with autism.

Finally, keeping our focus on the television set, a new series is set to premiere on the BBC that many families in the U.S. will likely find to be must-watch viewing. The A Word is a new six-part BBC1 drama that finds autism at the heart of its story. The series focuses on the fictional Hughes family, anchored by Doctor Who star Christopher Eccleston, who struggle to come to terms with life when their youngest son is diagnosed with autism.

The show debuts on the heels of the recent airing of the documentary How to Dance in Ohio, a film we’ve previously discussed that premiered on HBO and tells the story of a group of young girls with autism as they prepare for their prom. There is certainly a lot of exciting programming to watch this autumn!