Sesame Street, the long-running children’s program, announced that muppet Julia will become its first-ever character with autism.
Julia is already a staple in Sesame Street digital and print books, and will officially join the cast full-time in the 47th season in April.
A Sunday 60 Minutes segment shows the behind-the-scenes process of building Julia in the famous Jim Henson Workshop. She was initially introduced in 2015 as an animated character, but she’ll now join Elmo and the rest of the puppet gang.
Over the almost five decades “Sesame Street” has been on the air, it has established a reputation for inclusion with its characters.
Julia is brought to life by puppeteer Stacey Gordon, who is a mother of a child with autism. Initially doubtful that Julia would be developed beyond her original animated state, she thought, “It’s so far out there, it’s never going to happen,” she said.
On Julia’s first episode, the Sesame Street crew will try to welcome Julia with handshakes, which she rebuffs. They’ll realize in time that her resistance isn’t impolite, but instead an autistic trait — and in turn, they’ll learn more effective ways to communicate.
Meet Julia, the newest friend on Sesame Street. Julia has autism, and when she’s excited, sometimes she flaps her arms. Abby flaps her wings when she’s excited. Together, they’re the perfect pair to pretend to be butterflies…and then watch a real butterfly that lands in the garden!
Another scene shows Julia and fellow muppet Abby finding a mutually enjoyable activity. Julia speaks and acts a little differently than Abby, but they figure out how to have a great time anyway.
Joan Ganz Cooney , one of the founders of the Children’s Television Workshop which developed “Sesame Street,” said it has also not been afraid to deal with real life issues including the death of a beloved character, Mr. Hooper in 1983.
“Sesame Street had always dealt with the real,” she said. ” And it was real, and so we decided not to just replace him and call the man Mr. Hooper and hope they didn’t notice.”
Julia’s debut episode will deal with what autism can look like. The brain disorder can make it difficult for people with autism to communicate with and relate to others.
Big Bird talked of his first interaction with Julia in which she ignored him.
“I thought that maybe she didn’t like me,” he said.
“Yeah, but you know, we had to explain to Big Bird that Julia likes Big Bird,” the Elmo character added. ” It’s just that Julia has autism. So sometimes it takes her a little longer to do things.”
“I think the big discussion right at the start was, ‘How do we do this? How do we talk about autism?,'” one of the show’s writers, Christine Ferraro, said.
Ferraro hopes that along with educating viewers about autism the new character will settle in as a part of the neighborhood.
“I would love her to be not Julia, the kid on Sesame Street who has autism,” the writer added. “I would like her to be just Julia.”
And while the show may make it look like Julia’s character effortlessly came together, it took years of consulting with organizations and experts in the autism community to develop her character, and the campaign, Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president of U.S. Social Impact said.
“In the U.S., one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder,” Betancourt said in the interview. “We wanted to promote a better understanding and reduce the stigma often found around these children. We’re modeling the way both children and adults can look at autism from a strength-based perspective: finding things that all children share.”
Scott Badesch, president and CEO of the Autism Society of America, was involved in the committee of people in the autism community who helped Sesame Workshop think through the concept. His son, who has autism, watched the show as a child. He graduated from college last year, and is working, Badesch said.
Badesch said that it was obvious the committee “really wanted to get it right – and they got it right,” with Julia’s character.
“When you can have a character that shows what autism is, it will help everyone who watches Sesame Street have a really good appreciation of what a is, in a positive way,” Badesch said.
He said that people often forget that autism is a spectrum.
“People are on various points of that spectrum,” he said. “The common characteristic that people don’t understand is that behind that is a human being.”
“Sesame Street” will air the special episode “Meet Julia” Monday, April 10 on HBO and PBS KIDS