Sesame Street has always been at the forefront of early childhood education. Now for the first time in its almost 50 years of air-time, the “it” show of children’s TV is introducing an autistic character.
In 2015 Sesame Workshop’s website introduced Julia for the very first time. But, this new friend is different than the other characters – she’s autistic. As part of Sesame Workshop’s “See Amazing in All Children” initiative, Julia could help young children to understand what autism is and let children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) feel like they belong.
— Sesame Street (@sesamestreet) March 20, 2017
Even though Julia’s been a character on the website for a few years, she’s finally making her big-time debut. The autistic character is coming to Sesame Street (on PBS and HBO). But, getting her there wasn’t easy. Sesame Street writer Christine Ferraro told 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl, “It’s tricky because autism is not one thing, because it is different for every single person who has autism. There is an expression that goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” In the same interview, some of the famous Muppet characters spoke up about their new friend Julia.
Big Bird noted that Julia didn’t really answer him when he spoke to her, saying, “And I thought maybe she didn’t like me.” Then Elmo chimed in with, “Yeah, but you know, we had to explain to Big Bird that Julia likes Big Bird. It’s just that Julia has autism. So sometimes it takes her a little longer to do things.”
Even though the effort to bring Julia to Sesame Street has hardly been a solitary task, one veteran puppeteer is charged with truly bringing this character to life. Stacy Gordon is the woman behind the girl. The puppeteer used to do therapeutic work with autistic people and has a son who has ASD. She told NPR, “Man, I really wish that kids in my son’s class had grown up with a Sesame Street that had modeling [of] the behavior of inclusion of characters with autism.”
Having an autistic character on such a highly-watched show is a major step in acknowledging the issues that people with ASD face. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, between 2009 and 2012 there was a 79% increase in the number of Australians estimated to have ASD. Julia’s role will hopefully help some of the children with autism feel more comfortable with themselves and help other children to become more accepting.
For a young child, autism can be scary. Like Big Bird, other kids may feel confused or even hurt when an autistic child won’t talk to or acknowledge them. Julia can help those children to better understand how people with autism may (but not always) act and react.
Known for inclusion when it comes to their cast of characters, this is one more moment that Sesame Street has made us mums smile and help our kids to become better people.
Julia’s debut episode will air on April 10 on HBO and around the world, including Australia’s ABC Network.