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While the fact that Julia, is “Sesame Street’s” first new Muppet in a decade is certainly newsworthy, that is not the only thing that makes her special. The cheery, green-eyed 4-year-old, who has autism, is also here to expose young kids to children with autistic traits and teach them about acceptance.
Julia, who will make her television debut on April 10, 2017, came to life as an illustration in Sesame’s Digital Storybook story, “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.” Designed to educate the public about autism, it was an instant hit. Families quickly connected with the little red-haired girl who walked around with a stuffed bunny. Sherrie Westin, an executive vice president at Sesame Workshop who oversaw the initiative, says, her favorite feedback came from a mother who used Julia to explain to her autistic daughter what the condition meant, prompting the daughter to say: “So I’m amazing, too, right?”
The creators decided to bring the Muppet on air so that she would be able to reach millions more kids and families. However, as autism looks different in everyone, it can be tricky to introduce. To discover how best to normalize and convey it, Sesame Workshop consulted with over 250 educators, psychologists, and autism organizations.
In Julia’s first episode viewers will observe common scenarios for people with autism and similar disorders. For example, when the other Muppets want to play tag, Julia starts jumping up and down with excitement. Instead of berating her, group starts jumping with her and it becomes a new game. And when Julia first meets Big Bird, she ignores him. At first, Big Bird’s feelings are hurt, but he learns that doesn’t mean she dislikes him — she just communicates with strangers in a different way.
Though she may get distracted easily, be sensitive to loud noises, and repeat what others say, Julia isn’t defined by autism. Along with being one of Elmo’s friends, the red-haired puppet is artistic, likes to pick flowers, enjoys playing with Abby Cadabby, and loves to sing with the rest of the gang. Sesame Street writer Christine Ferraro says, “I would love her to be not Julia, the kid on Sesame Street who has autism . . . I would like her to be just Julia.”
Stacey Gordon, Julia’s puppeteer who has an autistic son, says, “It’s important for kids without autism to see what autism can look like.” She wishes her son’s friends had been able to see a character like Julia when they were young. Though not clear if the cheery new Muppet will become a permanent character, Julia is scheduled to appear in two episodes this season.
Autism spectrum disorder, which is characterized by challenges with social skills, speech, and nonverbal communication, affects 1 in 68 children in the United States and scores more worldwide. Sadly, over 63 percent of kids with autism are bullied. Experts believe this is caused by a lack of understanding of the affliction, especially among children. Hopefully, by watching Julia, kids will see that everyone should be treated equally and appreciated for their own special gifts and behavior.
Resources: NPR.org, Dailymail.co.uk, cnn.com