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What can Elmo teach us about autism?

Being able to share your emotions is important for social development and for making friends; the same principle also applies in Sesame Street. The makers of the American Sesame Street programme have introduced a new character, Julia, in the hope of helping children and parents understand autism sufferers better so that they can play their part well in society.

The American version of Sesame Street has recently gained a new resident: a four-year-old girl with red hair, called Julia. Elmo, with his usual enthusiasm, goes up to Julia and says, 'Hello.' Julia does answer him, but barely acknowledges him, and simply continues playing with her doll. Julia has autism. 

Better understanding of children with autism 

According to international research, between 1% and 1.5% of children between the ages of four and twelve have been diagnosed with a disorder in the autism spectrum; these numbers are even higher in the Netherlands. The makers of Sesame Sreet hope that by letting viewers get to know Julia, children with autism will be better understood so that they can play a bigger part in society. 

In the film, Elmo tells the viewers that there are many different ways to play together. He shows  how he plays peek-a-boo with his own doll, and so manages to attract Julia's attention. She turns towards him and smiles. After a few more attempts, he gets her to play peek-a-boo with her own doll. Elmo and Julia then enjoy playing side by side.

Managing emotions in young children with autism

Recent research in Leiden on Managing emotions in young children with autism included children of the same age as Julia, with and without autism. Our findings show how children with autism experience emotions, both their own and those of others. 

Our research shows that children with autism are less likely to look at other people's face and eyes, just as Julia did not look at Elmo when she spoke to him. Looking at a person's face is important because the face - and particularly the eyes - gives you a lot of the information you need to judge how to respond to people.  

Experiencing social interaction

By using objective and sensitive measures of emotion, we were also able to study how children themselves experience this social interaction. The results show that children with autism are not always prompted automatically to respond to the emotions of others. 

An important finding was that when children with autism themselves experience strong emotions, for example if they are prevented from playing with their favourite toy, they are able to experience and express emotions to the same degree as children without autism. 

When Julia, on her own initiative, plays peek-a-boo with her doll and obviously enjoys the game, she is able to interact more with Elmo.  Being able to share your emotions is important for social development and for making friends, including in Sesame Street. 

Autism week 2017: 1 - 8 April

The Autism Week is being organised this year for the eighth time, around 2 April: World Autism Awareness Day. This year's theme is Young & AUT, and the aim is to focus atention on the importance of recognising autism, particularly at an early stage. Read more.