Karli, a green Muppet with two yellow pigtails, was introduced in May as a character in foster care who still has a relationship with her biological mother.
On Wednesday, Sesame Workshop announced that the show would be exploring Karli’s backstory, which includes that her mother has an addiction.
Elmo and other popular characters will “learn what Karli is going through and help their friend to cope” in videos and other materials available through the Sesame Street in Communities program — a free online resource intended to help parents, caregivers, social workers, therapists and other working with children in these situations.
Sesame Workshop said it has decided to create content focused on the topic of addiction, given that data shows 5.7 million children under the age of 11 live in households with a parent who deals with substance abuse.
“There’s nothing else out there that addresses substance abuse for young, young kids from their perspective,” said Kama Einhorn, a senior content manager with Sesame Workshop of its new Karli content.
More than 130 people die every day on average in the U.S. due to opioids, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. In 2017, more than 70,000 people died of opioid overdoses ― with almost 68% of these deaths involving an illicit or prescription opioid such as OxyContin, an addictive painkiller. The deaths led the Centers of Disease Control to declare a public health emergency.
Einhorn added that if a parent experiencing addiction “can take one thing away when they watch it with their kids... then that serves the purpose.”
Although the Sesame Street in Communities program has been praised for helping young children, their parents and caregivers, its materials have been criticized.
In August, the respected advocacy group Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), which is run by autistic individuals, announced it was cutting ties with “Sesame Street” after the show’s communities program aired public service announcements featuring Julia, the first Muppet with autism.
The PSAs encourage parents to check out the “Screen for Autism” initiative by the nonprofit Autism Speaks, which includes a resource called the 100 Day Kit for parents of newly diagnosed autistic children. According to ASAN, the kit encourages parents to blame family stress on their autistic child, spend time with their non-autistic children remembering how things were better before their sibling’s diagnosis and to go through the five stages of grief after learning that a child is autistic, “as they would if the child had died.”
The disability community has been critical of Autism Speaks for a long time due to its harmful rhetoric.