Meet Julia: Sesame Street's new family member, four-year-old with autism

Sesame Street is welcoming a new muppet to its TV family with a special episode designed to introduce viewers to four-year-old Julia, a character with autism.

 

The popular children's program has often experimented with new ways of teaching kids about social issues as well as their ABCs since its launch nearly 50 years ago. Now it's taking on a new challenge: autism.

The Julia character has been featured in Sesame Street-branded digital content since last year, and the Meet Julia episode will premiere in the US on April 10.

New Sesame Street muppet Julia was created to promote understanding and inclusion of children with autism. Picture: AAP

The episode introducing includes some scenarios common to people with the social communication disorder.

When Big Bird is introduced to Julia, she ignores him. And when a group of children decide to play tag together, the new muppet becomes so excited she starts jumping up and down.

"That's a thing that can be typical of some kids with autism," Sesame Street writer Christine Ferraro told the US 60 Minutes program.

But the situation turns into a new game in which all the children jump around with Julia.

"So it was a very easy way to show that with a very slight accommodation, they can meet her where she is," Ms Ferraro said.

She said writers were met with a challenge of how to introduce autism into the program.

"It's tricky because autism is not one thing, because it is different for every single person who has autism."

As for other characters, the show conducted extensive research, including consultations with educators and child psychologists, and in this case autism organizations, to understand how best to normalise autism for non-autistic children.

Julia's puppeteer, Stacey Gordon, also happens to be the mother of an autistic son.

"It's important for kids without autism to see what autism can look like," she told 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."

The on-air introduction of Julia is part of a five-year research effort dubbed See Amazing in All Children by producer Sesame Workshop to address the neurological condition that affects an estimated one out of every 68 children.

Sesame Street conducted extensive research, including consultations with educators and child psychologists, to understand how best to normalise autism for non-autistic children. Picture: AFP

"Bringing Julia to life as a Sesame Street muppet is the centrepiece of all of our new materials to support families of children with autism," said Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop's exec VP of global impact and philanthropy.

"The response from the autism community to See Amazing in All Children has been extraordinary, and we are committed to continuing our efforts to promote understanding and acceptance of autism, as part of our mission of helping all children grow smarter, stronger, and kinder."

Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop's senior VP of US social impact, said families of children with autism have asked the show to address the issue for years now.

Although it's not clear whether Julia will become a major character, "I would love her to be," Ms Ferarro said.

"I would love her to be not Julia, the kid on Sesame Street who has autism," she added. "I would like her to be just Julia."

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