By: Sylvina Raver, Ph.D.
Education and Mental Health
Sesame Street’s new brand of autism education
There’s a new Muppet on the block: her name is Julia, she’s in preschool, and she has autism. Julia’s arrival on Sesame Street is part of a coordinated effort by the Sesame Workshop – the nonprofit organization behind the long-running educational children’s program – to reduce the stigma associated with autism and to normalize the disorder among preschool children. The initiative, called Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children, is a web-based project with resources for parents that include videos aimed at educating kids ages 2-5 about their peers with autism, a storybook featuring Julia and her friends, and free daily routine cards that parents can use to teach their autistic children basic skills like teeth brushing.
The new initiative was created based on solid academic research thanks to input from multiple universities, professional organizations, and advocacy groups. The Sesame Workshop also worked to ensure that these resources included the viewpoints of individuals with autism. One in 68 children in the US is diagnosed with autism, which ensures that young kids are almost assured to interact with an autistic peer. Despite the prevalence of the disorder, bullying is still extremely common. One recent study by the Interactive Autism Network found that 63 percent of children with autism have been bullied. The Sesame Street initiative aims to foster tolerance and acceptance with preschool age children in the hope of decreasing bullying among older children, in part by normalizing the features of autism, rather than by exaggerating how they may be disabling to children with the disorder. There’s plenty of room for optimism concerning the effectiveness of using Sesame Street as a platform for this type of education. A 2015 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the program is “the largest and least-costly [early-childhood] intervention that’s ever been implemented” in the US. (Lauren McKenna, The Atlantic; Elizabeth Blair, NPR)
In heroin crisis, white families seek gentler war on drugs
The nation’s long-running war on drugs has been defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. It emerged during a crack cocaine epidemic of the mid 1980’s that was primarily concentrated in poor, predominantly black, urban areas. In contrast, the heroin epidemic of the last decade is concentrated in white communities, many of which are suburban and middle-class. This demographic shift in drug use is starting to have profound consequences on how the drug war is being waged. Families who have lost loved ones to heroin are increasingly channeling their anger and grief into efforts to change the language surrounding addiction, and to urge politicians and government to treat drug use as a disease instead of a crime. For example, the derogatory term “junkie” is falling out of favor in lieu of softer and more understanding language. President Obama visited West Virginia recently, a mostly white state with staggering numbers of heroin overdose deaths, to discuss a new proposal to expand access for drug treatment and prevention programs. Presidential hopefuls from both parties have adopted a tone of compassion, rather than punishment: Hillary Clinton has been hosting forums on the issue in New Hampshire, and Jeb Bush is openly discussing his family’s experiences with drug addiction. In a dramatic shift, the Gloucester, Massachusetts police department is employing a new approach to heroin use that at least three dozen other departments have now adopted: users will no longer be arrested if they walk into a police station for help, even if they are in possession of heroin or its associated paraphernalia.
Many people welcome this shift as a needed course correction in light of our scientific understanding of the biology of addiction. However, some black scholars express frustration that similar calls for a more empathetic approach to drug addiction were not heard when they originated from the black community. Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, a scholar of racial issues at Columbia and UCLA law schools, notes …”had this compassion existed for African-Americans caught up in addiction and the behaviors it produces, the devastating impact of mass incarceration upon entire communities would never have happened.” (Katherine Q. Seelye, The New York Times)
Create a global microbiome effort
In last weeks’ issue of Science magazine, a group of leading scientists in the US called for the creation of a Unified Microbiome Initiative (UMI) which would assemble researchers with representatives from private and public agencies and foundations to study the activities of the Earth’s microbial ecosystems. Nearly every organism and habitat on Earth hosts a unique population of microorganisms, known as its microbiome. These microbial communities are fundamental to nearly all aspects of life on Earth. For example, soil microbes drive the production of usable forms of crucial planetary elements like carbon and nitrogen, and their manipulation shows promise for reducing agricultural use of pesticides, fertilizers, and water use. Ocean microbes produce much of earth’s oxygen, and may be able to be engineered to remove gases from the Earth’s atmosphere that contribute to global warming. Emerging research has revealed the role played by microbes that live within our own bodies in driving overall health and shaping our behavior. This human microbiome is increasingly seen as a target for new drugs, and is an essential tool for precision medicine.
Despite the crucial functions that microorgansms play, and the spectacular promise that they show for addressing challenges to environmental and human health, scientists know very little about how microbes interact with each other, their environments, and their hosts. This is in large part due to an absence of tools currently available that would “enable a mechanistic, predictive, and actionable understanding of global microbiome processes.” Addressing these technical limitations are central to the proposed UMI. The team calling for its formation describes a need for enhanced multi-disciplinary collaboration between physical, life, and biomedical sciences; engineering, and computer science in order to implement hypothesis-driven approaches that can establish causal relationships between microorganisms and their environments.
A second – and equally important – aspect of a UMI involves the need for enhanced collaboration between researchers who study different microbiome populations. Boundaries between scientists who investigate various microorganism communities are artificial and are largely due to historical divides between scientific disciplines, rather than reflecting fundamental differences between microbes that colonize a human mouth or the ocean floor. Furthermore, microbe communities are not limited to national borders but are instead part of a global microbiome. Indeed, the journal Nature contains an accompanying call for the creation of an International Microbiome Initiative to provide universal insight into the microscopic organisms all around and within us. (Alivisatos et al., Science; Dubilier, McFall-Ngai, & Zhao, Nature; Ed Yong, The Atlantic)
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