For the first time in a decade, Sesame Street will introduce a new character to the program. Her name is Julia and she’s a 4-year-old with red hair and green eyes who loves her rabbit. She also happens to have autism.
Julia was first introduced through digital and paper storybooks, but she’ll make her live-action television debut on all Sesame Street platforms (PBS, HBO and YouTube) on April 10. She’s set to appear in 2 episodes this season and should have a more regular role in seasons ahead.
To bring Julia to life, the Sesame Street team made sure to do their homework. The process took 5 years and involved meeting with more than 250 organizations and experts to accurately portray a character with certain conditions and developmental disorders that fall into the range of the autism spectrum.
One in 68 U.S. children is diagnosed with autism and there are more than 3.5 million people in the U.S. affected by it. As such, Julia is part of a larger initiative by the Sesame Workshop to explain autism to viewers and create a character to which children with autism can relate.
Julia’s puppeteer, Stacey Gordon has a special connection with her character: Her son is autistic, and she knows how much onscreen representation can make a difference in raising public awareness. “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,” Gordon said in a recent 60 Minutes segment.
In the forthcoming episode, Julia will display several behavioral characteristics of children with autism, including ignoring Big Bird when he first introduces himself. From there, Abby Cadabby and Elmo will explain Julia’s behavior in an attempt to normalize autism for both the residents of Sesame Street and viewers at home. Viewers can also spend time learning more about Julia on a new Sesame Street site completely dedicated to autism, which includes 6 digital live-action segments featuring Elmo and Abby.
The plan is to have Julia become a recurring character on the show, but the real impact is familiarizing and understanding a complicated disorder. As Christine Ferraro, a 25-year writer of the series told CBS, “I would love her to be not Julia, the kid on Sesame Street who has autism. I would like her to be just Julia.”
[H/T CBS News]