Kids with diabetes have a lot to deal with in their day-to-day lives, but one of the toughest things they must face is feeling like they are different. So what do you do when a little girl wants her doll to have an insulin pump just like her? For Anja Busse, the answer was to ask one of the biggest companies in the world if they would add a diabetes kit to their dolls’ accessories. The outpouring of support, both from the company and the public, propelled one girl’s idea into a reality.
For many children, their doll is more than just a plaything—it is a way to learn about the real world. Practicing on dolls can be very important for young children learning to deal with their diabetes care management. Micaela Francis, a Child Life specialist at Joslin Diabetes Center, explains that when children are in the Joslin playroom they are encouraged to play in ways that incorporate understanding diabetes. “Medical play allows the child to walk through the procedures they may experience at Joslin: blood draws or starting an insulin pump or a continuous glucose monitor device,” says Francis. “This allows them to know what to expect and feel more prepared for their upcoming procedure.”
Dolls are especially helpful at this sort of play since children identify with them. But while there has been a push for popular doll brands to look more like real girls, it’s still rare to find toys outside of clinical settings that incorporate medical equipment as a normal accessory.
The American Girl Company, which just celebrated 30 years in business, has been one of the few companies to offer customizable dolls resembling real-life-girls. They started with options for hair color, eye color, and skin tone and soon added more unique items like glasses and wheelchairs. “American Girl has a long-standing commitment to creating products that girls in various circumstances can identify with—from our Dolls Without Hair and Hearing Aids to our iconic Wheelchair that’s been in our line for nearly 20 years, to name just a few,” says American Girl representative Stephanie Spanos in an email conversation.
Which is why when Anja (pronouced Ahn-ya) Busse was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes she looked to American Girl to find a doll just like her. But while she saw dolls with guide dogs and epipens, she didn’t see any with diabetes supplies. “There’s even an allergy-free luncheon,” says Anja. “But I wanted to find one with an insulin pump like me.” She isn’t one to sit on the sidelines, so she decided (after getting permission from her mom) to post a video to the petition website Change.org to see if she could garner a response about including a diabetes tool kit in the American Girl accessory line. The feedback she received was both incredible and astounding.
Anja and her mom Ingrid watched thousands of signatures pour in. “People were really excited about it. It sounded like [American Girl] really got slammed with a ton of letters and calls from people saying they really wanted it,” says Ingrid. There was no indication the petition had worked, so Anja kept busy with other diabetes projects like teaching local schools the difference between type 1 and type 2, starting a blog, and sending well wishes to kids with diabetes across the globe. And then about a year and a half later Ingrid saw an article with a statement from American Girl hinting that a diabetes kit was coming out in January of 2016.
“We’re very proud of our positive reputation for inclusiveness and we remain committed to exploring and expanding in this important area,” says American Girl representative Spanos of the newly included diabetes kit. The company also rolled out arm crutches along with their new diabetes kits this January. Within just a few short weeks, they have proven to be very popular. They sold out in February and are currently backordered until May.
Although technically Mattel does not take suggestions for new products, they seem to have given a shout out to Anja’s idea. “They put an article about the kit with her picture on their Facebook page,” says Ingrid. “And when we saw it we were like wow! That’s huge!”
One of the best outcomes of this project is the community that has grown around the dolls. “When the petition started we had a lot of people share that they felt alone,” says Ingrid. “And I know it’s a small thing to have a doll that’s like you but for a lot of these kids it means so much.”
Since the kits have come out, kids have shared their excitement over the new accessories on Anja’s Diabetic American Girl Doll Facebook page. “They send pictures of themselves with their dolls and they both have their insulin pumps on,” says Anja. “It’s been really cool to see those pictures and to see the girls smiling about having the kit for the doll. To be just like your doll is really amazing.”
“By having a high profile toy such as an American Girl Doll with diabetes gives children a toy they can relate to,” says Francis. “This opens the door for them to confidently talk about their diabetes. It allows the child to have a special item that is just like them to take wherever they go and teach others about what they go through on a day to day basis.”
For more information on the Joslin playroom and other early childhood initiatives, visit our Child Life Services page. You can also learn more about caring for childhood type 1 diabetes, or request an appointment, by visiting our Pediatrics page.