For almost 50 years, the Muppets on Sesame Street have been teaching kids about a variety of topics, from the alphabet to major social issues like bullying, food insecurity, and divorce. Now, the program is breaking new ground by introducing a character with autism, a Muppet named Julia.
While Julia has appeared in an online storybook from Sesame Street, this will be the first time her character appears on the TV show. The program’s producers worked with child psychologists and autism organizations to figure out the best way to portray autism. Their goal: Help all children understand why someone with the condition acts the way they do -- which may be different than expected.
When Julia is introduced to Big Bird, for example, she doesn’t respond. As Elmo explained on 60 Minutes, it’s not personal: “It’s just that Julia has autism. So sometimes it takes her a little longer to do things.” Autism doesn’t always look the same for everyone, though, so it’s important to realize kids with autism may do things differently.
With autism affecting 1 in 68 children today, there is a chance that many children may cross paths with someone on the autism spectrum. And hopefully, Julia’s role on Sesame Street can help them know what to expect. “It’s wonderful that an autistic character is being introduced. This will certainly benefit all kids as they will learn to befriend and understand children who are different,” says Hansa Bhargava, MD, WebMD medical editor and expert pediatrician.
Plus, Julia’s condition is close to home for her puppeteer, Stacey Gordon. She has a son with autism. As she tells 60 Minutes, “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.”