Researchers at the Georgetown University Medical Center’s Center for Child and Human Development presented the preliminary results of a study to assess the impact and effectiveness of a Sesame Workshop initiative for children with autism Tuesday.
The initiative Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children tells the story of Julia, a Muppet with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and includes online videos, mobile apps, storybooks and daily routine cards that concern her experiences with ASD.
The online program seeks to build greater understanding of ASD to reduce stigma and encourage acceptance in local communities.
Led by Bruno Anthony, deputy director of the Center for Child and Human Development, and Hillary Robertson, a research associate, the study recruited over 1,000 volunteers of families with ASD and non-ASD children to test See Amazing’s effectiveness in increasing knowledge of and reducing negative biases towards ASD. The survey asked families to use various activities on the website and then complete surveys on their experience.
Anthony reported approximately 50 percent of children without autism showed an improvement in their knowledge and acceptance of autism after using See Amazing’s online resources, and 90 percent of volunteers enjoyed using the website.
He also noted parents of ASD children felt greater familiarity with and competence in managing the condition after using the program.
“We were pleased to see that the parents of ASD children showed significant reductions in ratings of caregiver strain and significant increases in feelings of competence from pre-viewing to follow-up,” Anthony wrote in an email to The Hoya.
The study found that See Amazing was successful across the board for parents of ASD children, as the researchers hypothesized, even improving parents’ comfort and willingness to have their children engage in their communities.
“We were most surprised by the large effects of the materials on feelings of community engagement by parents of ASD children, meaning parents’ comfort with engaging with their child in community activities,” Anthony wrote.
Parents of ASD children who felt the highest level of strain became the most likely to engage their children in community activities after using See Amazing materials, according to the report.
The study found that daily routine cards, a feature on the website designed to help children learn social and community skills, were helpful for both ASD and non-ASD families.
Anthony said he was surprised to see that the routine cards were highly rated among non-ASD families, as they are mainly intended for those affected by ASD.
Anthony and Robertson said that to continue their work in inclusivity for children with ASD, Sesame Workshop should consider developing in-person programs.
Anthony praised the organization for bringing Julia onto “Sesame Street” on April 10 in the episode Meet Julia.
The researchers also hope to continue studying the effectiveness of online autism training programs, moving their focus from assessing explicit biases to implicit biases, namely implicit attitude and stereotypes.
Robertson, who coordinated the study, said it was conducted with tight time constraints. According to Robertson, in addition to planning the study, the team also had to get it approved by an institutional review board and carry out the research within a year.
“The biggest challenge in planning and executing this study was time. We had a year to complete the project, which is not a lot of time in the research world,” Robertson wrote in an email.
Olivia Hamrah (MED ’17), a medical student planning to pursue Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, said she believes See Amazing is an effective and important tool in promoting awareness and tolerance of autism.
“I think it is a wonderful resource to expose the public to ASD in a positive light, and help parents explain autism to their children in a fun and effective way that models tolerance and inclusion,” Hamrah said.
She added that she was surprised to see substantial increases in understanding and acceptance in families with ASD children. She believes this adds to the efficacy of the See Amazing initiative, as it builds tolerance in external communities as well as within families.
“I would expect parents of non-ASD children to show a significant increase in these two outcomes after exposure to the See Amazing resource, but what I found surprising was that a similar increase was also seen in the parents of ASD children,” Hamrah said. “Not only are these resources effective in encouraging empathy and inclusion for children with autism among the general public, but also for promoting these attitudes within families of ASD children.”