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18 October 2017Last updated
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Muppets are spreading awareness about autism, gender equity and refugee crisis

Sherrie Westin of Sesame Workshop reveals how muppets are changing attitudes about autism and gender inequity and helping refugee kids cope

Anand Raj OK
6 May 2017 | 12:00 pm
  • Sherrie Westin - Sesame Workshop's VP for Global Impact and Philanthropy - with some of the female muppets from around the world.

    Source:Supplied

Sherrie Westin’s eyes mist over a tad when I ask her what has been the most heart-warming moment in her career.

‘There have been several, really,’ says the executive vice-president for Global Impact and Philanthropy at Sesame Workshop, the not-for-profit media company behind Sesame Street, the popular children’s television series. ‘But there was one recently which truly moved me.

‘A year ago, we launched a book See Amazing, as part of an autism initiative called See Amazing in All Children. It’s about Sesame Street muppets who meet Julia, a muppet who has autism, and goes on to explain Julia’s autism and how she is amazing.

‘Then a couple of months ago, I met a mother who told me how she used the story book to tell her five-year-old daughter that just like Julia, she [the daughter] too, has autism.

‘“At the end of the story book,” the mother told me, “my daughter slowly turned to me and said, mom, I’m amazing too.”’

‘It’s an incident that just warms my heart,’ says Sherrie.

Sipping a cappuccino on the sidelines of the Culture Summit 2017 in Abu Dhabi, a forum that brought together some of the planet’s top creative minds to discuss culture and the role they play in addressing the challenges faced today, Sherrie, an invitee, is chuffed by the positive changes Sesame Street’s Julia has helped bring about in the world of autism.

‘That moment when the mother told me about her autistic child,’ says Sherrie, ‘I realised how the book was helping parents of children with autism; I realised there weren’t many tools for a parent to explain something as complicated as autism to her child.’

But autism is not the only area where her organisation has helped make a difference.

‘Sesame Street’s content has always been relevant, just as it was when it was launched nearly five decades ago. With each decade we examine what the issues affecting children are and work towards tackling those,’ she says. ‘It has evolved but stayed contemporary and true to its DNA and values.’

Sherrie herself has evolved quite a bit.

Before joining Sesame Workshop, she held a series of high-profile jobs, including working for the Reagan campaign in the ’80s before becoming assistant for intergovernmental affairs and public liaison to former US president George Bush senior – one of the highest-ranking women in the White House in the early ’90s.

Was the transition from politics to puppets easy?

Sherrie throws back her head and laughs. ‘I like that line – politics to puppets,’ she says.

She quickly switches back to serious mode. ‘Public service is about serving and Sesame Workshop is about serving, so it was not a difficult transit from politics to puppets,’ she says.

Sherrie admits that in many ways, Sesame Workshop was the perfect place for her. ‘At the time [she moved to SW], I became a mother, and once I had children I wanted to focus on education and helping other children.’

The original DNA of Sesame Street, she says, was about reaching less affluent children who didn’t have the same advantages as others. It was an experiment to use television to reach those children who did not have the same quality of education as others, and help them arrive at school ready to learn. The intention was to make a difference in the lives of children.

The programme, she says, was an overnight success. ‘It was proof that the content could educate all children.’

Over the decades, specific issues were picked up and highlighted in programmes – from conflicts in the Middle East and the refugee crisis in Syria to helping children cope with HIV and Aids in South Africa and educating children and caregivers about obesity and unhealthy eating habits in the West.

Julia, the orange-haired, green-eyed girl muppet who takes a while to answer questions that her friends ask her because of her condition, came about two years ago.

But why a girl, I ask. After all, according to statistics, one in 42 boys is diagnosed with autism or an autism related condition, compared to one in 189 girls.

‘Good point,’ she says. ‘But when we were working on creating a muppet, we didn’t want to create a stereotypical character or one that portrayed a typical autism patient,’ says Sherrie. ‘The reason: there is no typical autism patient.’

She pauses to take a sip of her cappuccino.

‘There is a saying in the autism community that if you have seen one child with autism, you have seen one child with autism,’ she says, explaining how Julia developed from storyboard to the small screen.

‘We knew that it is very important to make it clear that this is Julia’s autism… these are characteristics that she has. But it still allowed us, working very closely with experts, to portray certain behaviours and characteristics that many parents and children with autism would be able to relate to and to allow us to explain them.’

She details a scene from Sesame Street where Julia meets Big Bird and the latter says ‘Hello’.

‘Julia does not respond, which allows Abby, another muppet, to explain to Big Bird that her friend Julia has autism. She says that clearly and goes on to say ‘although Julia did not respond it does not mean she doesn’t want to be your friend’.

‘It helped us explain that while Julia may not be able to express herself, she still wants to be included, she still wants to play, she still wants to be your friend…’

Autism is clearly a topic that needs to be better understood and accepted by society. A lot of focus, say experts, has been on highlighting the differences while what needs to be done is talking about the commonalities.

‘Children with autism,’ says Sherrie, are five times more likely to be bullied because there are certain differences and if the children are not able to understand the differences then the children are likely to be fearful or to avoid them.

‘So the point of this initiative is not only to help children with autism but also to have a character that they can relate with and to act as a model for all children if we can explain the differences. If we can increase awareness and understanding then we can increase encourage empathy and inclusion and understanding.’

Sherrie believes – and she backs it up with viewer responses - that the muppet can help children with autism feel less alone ‘but as importantly, help all children in understanding and seeing the commonalities and not just the differences.

‘That’s why,’ says Sherrie, ‘Julia is my favourite muppet.’

But the orange-haired muppet is not her only favourite, surely? Didn’t she once mention that Zari too was a muppet very close to her heart?

‘Oh yes,’ she admits with a smile. ‘She is, too.’

Zari came about after Sesame Street had been working in Afghanistan for about four years concentrating on girls’ education and gender equity. So when SW had the opportunity to create a local muppet, ‘we wanted it to make it a girl so that we could model the importance of girls’ education in Afghanistan’, says Sherrie.

Zari has a variety of outfits, but when she goes to school the muppet wears a hijab with her school uniform. ‘She loves to learn, play sport…. The important thing is she is not just inspiring young girls to the possibilities and importance of education but the show is telling young boys that it’s ok for girls to go to school,’ says Sherrie.

And what has been the response to the show in Afghanistan?

Sherrie’s eyes light up. ‘Tremendous,’ she says. ‘Our research showed that boys who watched the show tested 30 per cent higher on gender equity, meaning they now think it is good for their sisters to go to school.

‘We also found that fathers cited this programme as the reason they changed their mind about permitting their daughters to go to school.’

Sherrie believes the reason for the programme’s popularity is because it reaches parents in a non-threatening way. ‘It does not point fingers but instead shows for instance a father helping his daughter getting ready for school… all sorts of things to plant that seed that can help open minds.’

Helping all children grow to become smarter, stronger and kinder, the mission of Sesame Workshop, is what led the content producers to tailor-make programmes for refugee children too.

‘The programmes are seen in over 150 countries but our biggest focus is to reach vulnerable children,’ says Sherrie. ‘And right now our focus is a problem that is not going away and what I’d say is the greatest humanitarian crisis in our lifetime.’

According to a recent survey, of the 65 million displaced people around the world, half are children. That’s not all. Around 12 million of those are kids younger than eight. The children suffer the effects of violence and neglect that can led to toxic stress and lifelong damage to their psyche, say experts. ‘But the damage can be reduced if they are reached out to early,’ says Sherrie.

For the project to help refugee children, Sherrie’s organisation is partnering with the International Rescue Committee. ‘We chose IRC because while we have proven education content, they have the infrastructure and the boots on the ground, if you will, to help implement the programmes that will reach children and families,’ she says.

The new Sesame Street series which touches upon the refugee crisis, was launched in January this year, and while it is helping children cope with displacement also offers tips to parents on adjusting in a new place and a different culture.

The programme is already a success if the honours it has been receiving is any indication. Selected as a semi-finalist for the $100 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, it is, says Sherrie, already making inroads in children’s mental health. The 15-month pilot programme will develop, implement, and assess educational materials for young children and caregivers among both displaced and host populations in Jordan. ‘It will lay the groundwork for the future, larger initiative,’ she says.

She is quick to add that adults too are in dire need of a shoulder to lean on. ‘In a setting such as refugee camps, parents too are so stressed themselves they need help in understanding why it is so important to engage with children. They need strategies to help do so.

‘This will be an ongoing commitment for Sesame Street to reach out to those children otherwise they will end up being the generation that is left behind.’

Anand Raj OK

Anand Raj OK