“Why does he copy everything you say?”

I encounter this question matched with a sweet, curious face as I collect Romeo’s belongings from his cubby.

  • As part of Autism Awareness Month in April, we are proud to help promote understanding and acceptance of autism spectrum disorder. Our own Margarita Rivera is mom to 5-year-old Romeo, who is on the autism spectrum. Come with us as she shares their journey.
  • More autism blog posts, resources

Monday through Friday, my little boy, Romeo, participates in an Exceptional Student Education class with the county’s public school where they incorporate therapies into typical school routine. The students in his class of six are too occupied with their own spectrum challenges to make analysis of Romeo’s patterns or unusual behaviors. But here at the daycare’s afterschool program, there are children with questions.

Imagine our excitement when hearing news of Sesame Street introducing its first Muppet character with autism!

We all know Sesame Street from childhood, helping us learn our educational basics and now further extending their scene to incorporate acceptance of the differences in others. As I sit for my lunch break, I search clip after clip of this beautiful Julia character. I am mesmerized by the familiar behaviors shared by her, Romeo and many of the 1 in 68 children on the autism spectrum.

Some afterschool friends might notice the way Romeo can have intense focus to follow straight lines. Walking by counters or tables, he tends to follow through staring at the edges by the corners of his eyes; once he creates a starting point on that object, he must complete the course of the object; he won't allow anything to disrupt that task.

Friends may also point out that Romeo likes to jump — a lot. I have walked in several times a week for afterschool pick-up to find that while everyone is on the circle rug watching a movie, Romeo chooses to be in the corner reading the months of the year from a wall chart as he jumps up and down repeatedly with no sign of exhaustion. In the past year and almost every day, someone takes notice of Romeo communicating in the form of echolalia, which is common in children with autism.

Echolalia is the repetition of words, phrases, intonation or sounds of the speech of others.

When affected by autism, a child is presented with social-communication challenges. The correlation between understanding vocabulary and expressing language becomes fuzzy, so additional support, such as speech therapy, can be beneficial. For a child who has had no usage of language such as Romeo but has reached a developmental milestone of speech in the form of echolalia, this is looked at as a step in a positive direction, a phase in the process of learned communication.

I look back at the sweet face and explain that Romeo copies everything I say because he has a different way of thinking than us. I also share with him that Romeo might even copy what he may say because Romeo wants to have a conversation with him.

Sharing this insight with those around us comes about for the very reason Sesame Street recognized a need to create Julia, to bring more understanding to autism, its characteristics and how we can support one another by accepting our differences. This is something we all can appreciate.

Julia has made her debut — check out “Seeing amazing in all children” with Julia on Sesame Street!