Sesame Street has finally introduced Julia, a Muppet with autism and the first new character added to the show in four years. It’s an auspicious event because the Sesame Street Workshop spent five years gathering input from more than 250 experts just to make sure she’s an accurate portrayal of the autism spectrum. Today, kids can meet Julia for the first time across multiple platforms.
The episode, appropriately titled “Meet Julia,” uses Big Bird to represent the kids watching who may be unfamiliar with someone with autism. It opens on Abby and Elmo finger painting with their new friend, Julia. When Big Bird joins in on the finger painting Julia ignores him. He asks to see her painting, and she doesn’t acknowledge him. Alan, the human shopkeeper, explains Julia takes her time to respond. Big Bird asks again, and Julia repeats the question, “See your painting? Yes.”
Alan shows off Julia’s painting (which is seriously impressive for a 4-year-old Muppet) of her toy rabbit, Fluffster. The group flatters Julia’s artwork and she flaps in excitement. When Big Bird goes for a high-five, Julia walks away. He wonders why Julia doesn’t like him. Elmo and Abby to explain she does like Big Bird, but it may take her some time to react because she has autism. They say Julia may act differently, but she still loves to play, have fun, and be around friends just like him.
When the Sesame Street Workshop announced Julia, puppeteer Stacey Gordon wanted to voice the character. Gordon has an autistic son and knows that this is an important step for public awareness about the disorder. “It’s important to me that I treat her with reverence, with respect, and with reality,” said Gordon in an interview with AZ Central. “She needs authenticity, and I have so much respect for Sesame Street for seeking out a puppeteer who has experience with autism, because as a mom in the autism community I want to see characters represented in a realistic way.”
While Elmo and the gang play tag, a police siren goes off in the background. Julia covers her ears signaling she needs a break. Alan gives Julia the bunny and heads to her quiet spot. Again, Abby and Elmo explain to Big Bird that Julia’s sensitive to noise and needs to calm down when things get loud around Sesame Street. When she returns she gives Big Bird a flower. He relates his own flapping to hers. And everything is wrapped up with a song about how to be friends despite differences.
This is yet another big step for the show in portraying real issues that affect American children. Last year Sesame Street introduced Alex, a puppet with an incarcerated parent. And, in the past, the show hasn’t shied away from tough subjects such as death and racism. Studies have proved that children who watch Sesame Street perform better in school than those who don’t watch the series. Part of that is reinforcing the prosocial skills not taught in every school in America.