‘Sesame Street’s’ Autism Character Aims To Promote Understanding Of ASD

Her name is Julia! She’s just 4-years old, with red hair and green eyes, and this gorgeous little girl loves to paint and pick flowers. And when she speaks, Julia often repeats what she’s just heard Abby and Elmo say. Julie has autism.

NPR reported that for the first time in a decade, Sesame Street will introduce a new Muppet on their television show.

Julia first appeared as part of Sesame Street’s “See Amazing in All Children” initiative, and now viewers will see this bright, bubbly little character on TV as well. Stacey Gordon is the puppeteer who’s been chosen to play the part of Julia.

“There’s so many people that have given her what she is. I’m just hoping to bring her the heart.”

Because it can be hard to get Julia’s attention, presenting her to the rest of the Sesame Street gang and their young audience will require a careful explanation of her hidden talents and of her differences. For example, Big Bird has to repeat himself to get her to listen, and Julia often sees things that others don’t. But 3-year-old fairy Abby Cadabby has a simple explanation.

“That’s just Julia being Julia.”

In the past, Stacey Gordon performed therapeutic work for people with autism and says that her own son is on the autism spectrum. She believes Julia’s addition to the show will provide a great resource for both students with the disorder and their playmates.

“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.”

Jeanette Betancourt has been developing Julia for around three years. Jeanette says that introducing Julia’s character is just a natural follow-up from other initiatives created by Sesame Workshop, like military families enduring deployments and children who have a parent who’s incarcerated.

“Basically, in terms of vulnerable families, we’re looking at families who may have particular stressors in their lives that are impacting their young children, whether it’s economic or social emotional stresses or differences that they’re handling at the time.”

Parents who have children with autism told officials at Sesame Workshop just how important Sesame Street was for their children. According to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 American children has autism.

Last year, Julia started as a character in Sesame’s books and digital offerings. The executive vice president at Sesame Workshop, Sheree Westin, who oversaw the initiative, said the campaign very quickly struck a chord.

“One of my favorite stories is a mother who said that she used the book to explain to her child that she had autism like Julia. This became the tool for her to have a conversation with her five-year-old daughter. At the end her daughter said, ‘So I’m amazing too, right?'”

Fans of Sesame Street know only too well that it’s very rare for new and permanent Sesame characters to be introduced, but Westin said this is the next logical step.

“We realized if we brought her to life appearing in Sesame Street on air as well, she would have even more impact [and] be able to reach even more children.”

It’s planned for the character of Julia to appear in two episodes of the current season, with more to follow in the next season.

Rose Jochum is the director of Internal Initiatives at the Autism Society of America, which defines itself as America’s oldest advocacy group for people with autism

“The character Julia, she has wonderful drawing skills. She’s like a little budding artist. You know — autism — it brings wonderful gifts.”

The Autism Society of America was just one of 14 autism groups consulted by Sesame Workshop, which was important because there are differing opinions on how autism should be treated or addressed in public policy. Jochum was happy to say that they found common ground with Julia.

“She’s one of the kids, she’s one of the gang. It’s really meaningful to see her there, singing with Elmo, Big Bird and all the other characters. It’s great.”

Georgetown University has a team of researchers studying families who’ve experienced Sesame’s autism materials to see how effective they found the program. Approximately 1,000 families were surveyed, more than a third of whom have children with autism. Their preliminary findings suggested that the material helps families with autistic children feel more comfortable incorporating them in broader community activities, and just as importantly, families whose children don’t have autism are more accepting of children who do.

Julia is excited to make her television debut on Sesame Street on April 10 on platforms where the show’s programs can be found, including YouTube, HBO, and PBS Kids. In the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Mexico, she will initially appear in English and Spanish, then subsequently appear in more languages in other countries throughout the world.

Sheree Westin admitted that while there is no “typical example” of a child with autism, Julia is a carefully constructed character.

“We worked so carefully to make sure that she had certain characteristics that would allow children to identify with her. It’s what Sesame does best, you know, reaching children, looking at these things through their lens and building a greater sort of sense of commonality.”

Fox News reported, and all Sesame Street fans would already know, that folks on Sesame Street have a way of making everyone feel accepted.

And that certainly applies to Julia. Julia is definitely one of the gang and is never treated like an outsider, which unfortunately is often the plight of kids on the autism spectrum. The goal of introducing Julia to Sesame Street is to promote a better understanding of what the Autism Speaks advocacy group describes as “a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.”

Jeanette Betancourt is Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president of U.S. Social Impact.

“In the U.S., one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. 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.”

While Julia is at the center of this effort, she’s not meant to typify each child – she simply represents the full range of children on the spectrum.

“Just as we look at all children as being unique, we should do the same thing when we’re looking at children with autism.”

After more than a year of watching from the sidelines, Stacey Gordon was wishing and hoping.

“I said, ‘If she’s ever a puppet, I want to BE Julia!'”

And with good reason: Stacey is a Phoenix-based puppeteer who conducts classes and workshops, performs, and creates whimsical puppets to sell to the public. More importantly, she has a son with autism, and prior to starting her family, Stacey was a therapist to young children on the autism spectrum.

While she didn’t really think she had much chance of landing the dream role of Julia, it seems her contacts in the puppet world were on her side. Friends who worked as Muppeteers on Sesame Street spoke to the producers, and after submitting tapes and coming to New York for an interview, she landed the job.

Stacey recalls her son having meltdowns and his classmates not understanding how to react, and she believes that if her son’s friends had been able to see the “Meet Julia” episode, things may have been different.

The Guardian is just as excited about Sesame Street’s new character.

“Bravo, Sesame Street – your character with autism will erode ignorance. Any child who watches her will learn about acceptance and understanding of difference.”

The character of Julia will not only be helping children with autism who watch the show but all children. They’ll learn about specific behaviors; for instance, when Julia is introduced to big Bird, she ignores him. Obviously, Big Bird is upset, but then the other Muppets explain that Julia just does things a little differently – for example, she jumps up and down when she’s excited, but the children don’t exclude her – they incorporate her behaviors into their games.

Well done, Sesame Street, and a great big welcome to Julia!

[Featured Image by Sesame Street/Instagram]

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