Can a Cartoon Character Fight Stigma Against Autism?

Cartoons might seem like nothing more than a fun way to pass the time. Presumably, though, children who watch cartoons are integrating the things they see into how they view the world, as they do with more or less everything they encounter.

That realization that cartoons can shape children’s attitudes is probably part of the reason that Sesame Street decided to debut Julia, a character on the autism spectrum, in 2017. The benefits of introducing an autistic character to the popular children’s show are easy to see: children on the autism spectrum will feel more represented, and children who aren’t on the autism spectrum will hopefully learn something about autism, becoming more accepting of neurodiverse peers.

Sesame Workshop, the organization behind Sesame Street, has used Julia to raise awareness about autism. Recently, however, Julia has been a focus of controversy. After Sesame Street began using Julia to promote resources making questionable claims about autism, one of the organizations involved in Julia’s creation, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, chose to cut ties with Sesame Street.

Still, none of that gets at an important question: does encountering a cartoon character on the autism spectrum actually change the way children view autistic peers?

A recently published study looked at how 46 children between the ages of four and seven reacted to encountering Julia for the first time in a three-minute video clip. The researchers found that watching the clip did apparently improve children’s knowledge about autism, as well as their attitudes to peers with behaviors typical of autism.

The effects were modest. The clip seemed to influence attitudes only in some situations and only for some children.

That said, the fact that there was a noticeable difference in knowledge and attitudes after only a three-minute clip raises the possibility that, for longer viewings or repeated appearances, a cartoon character with autism can potentially make a real difference in fighting stigma. And that’s to say nothing of the meaning that such a character might have for children who are on the autism spectrum themselves.

Certainly, more research is needed to understand the full range of the impact that neurodiverse TV characters might have, and how those characters can most effectively counteract stigma. But given the potential for such characters to bring conditions like autism into everyday awareness, hopefully we’ll be seeing more research on this topic soon!