Julia will be the newest Muppet to join the cast of Sesame Street this season, which will premiere in April. Julia is a four-year-old preschooler. But there is something very special about Julia. Julia is the first Muppet, or any children’s show character for that matter, to have autism.
Actually, Julia’s character was introduced to the Sesame Street world in 2015, as part of Sesame Workshop’s digital initiative, “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.” The aim of the initiative was to “reduce the stigma of autism.” But now, the decision has been made to introduce Julia as a permanent member of the cast, the first new permanent member to be added since 2010.
The creators behind this initiative hope that introducing Julia will help other children better understand autism and prevent the bullying of autistic children.
“Children with autism are five times more likely to get bullied,” senior vice president of U.S. social impact, Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, told People Magazine about the program back in 2015. “And with one in 68 children having autism, that’s a lot of bullying. Our goal is to bring forth what all children share in common, not their differences. Children with autism share in the joy of playing and loving and being friends and being part of a group.”
It was important the Julia be made a girl because boys with autism outnumber girls four to one. So, that means the challenges that girls with autism face are far less understood. Also, autism looks different in girls and is sometimes misdiagnosed.
“We wanted to make it clear that girls can be on the spectrum, too... We’re trying to eliminate misconceptions, and a lot of people think that only boys have autism,” said Sherrie Westin, Sesame Street’s executive VP, global impact and philanthropy.
While every person with autism is different, the team behind Julia settled on some representative characteristics that many people on the autism spectrum have.
“She has some behaviors like not looking at you directly in the eye, she’s a little more sensitive to noises and lights but when she comes together with Abby and Elmo, she shares not only these challenges but also what she shares in common,” Dr. Jeanette Betancourt told ABC News.
The creators behind Julia want to teach other children that it is okay, and that they should try to interact with children with autism…even if their behavior may come off as unfriendly.
“If you’re five years old, and see another kid not making eye contact with you, you may think that child doesn’t want to play with you. But that’s not the case,” Sherri Westin told People in 2015. “We want to create greater awareness and empathy.”
Our first glimpse into live-action Julia was during a 60 Minutes special with Lesley Stahl, about Julia’s introduction to the Sesame Street cast. During a clip, Big Bird tries to introduce himself to Julia, but she doesn’t acknowledge him and that makes Big Bird feel like she doesn’t like him.
Since the autism spectrum is so broad, characteristics change from person to person. Some people with autism are non-verbal, while Julia on the other hand can talk a little bit. She does avoid eye contact, and tends to clap when she gets excited, which are some other features associated with autism. But Sesame Street writer, Christine Ferraro, told Lesley Stahl during the 60 Minutes interview, that getting Julia’s character down was no easy task.
“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,” Ferraro said.
Julia’s puppeteer, Stacey Gordon, has a very special connection with Julia — Gordon’s own son has autism.
“It makes that our kids are important enough to be seen in society. Having Julia on the show and seeing all of the characters treat her with compassion – and like her – it’s huge,” Gordon said. “It’s important for kids without autism to see what autism can look like. Had my son’s friends been exposed to his behaviors through something that they had seen on TV before they experienced them in the classroom, they might not have been frightened. They might not have been worried when he cried. They would have known that he plays in a different way and that that’s Ok.”
Julia will appear in two episodes of the upcoming season of Sesame Street, which premieres on April 10 on HBO and PBS. The creators plan on having her take on more of a recurring role as the seasons progress.