The general knowledge base through society about autism continues to grow and develop, and thanks to Sesame Street's introduction of a new character named Julia, the understanding of children with autism might expand for kids, too.
Julia is a new muppet with fiery red hair and bright green eyes who does things in a "Julia sort of way," according to Abby the muppet. Julia's the first muppet to have autism, and the move to have such a character on the show has been something the Sesame Street creative team has been working on for years.
Autism Speaks, an advocacy group that originated in the United States, was hoping the character would help promote a better comprehension of what they describe as “a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.”
It's a description of autism that seems apt, and it falls in nicely with Sesame Workshop's initiative called “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.” While there is no question that the whole of society should endeavor to see amazing in all children, everyone still needs work on developing that understanding that we are all unique and all have something to contribute, even at very young ages.
Rather than a rote listing of the symptoms of autism, Sesame Street takes its own approach to helping combat the isolation that kids with autism often face simply because they are different. When Big Bird first attempts to make friends with Julia, she doesn't seem to like him, at least according to the very naive and well-meaning Big Bird. He doesn't yet understand that Julia needs to approach things in her own way and time, as with most children.
Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s senior vice-president of U.S. Social Impact, wanted to ensure that Sesame Street focused on reducing the focus on the stigma of autism and work on the strengths that all children had within them.
“In the U.S., one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder,” she said. “We wanted to promote a better understanding and reduce the stigma often found around these children. We’re modeling the way both children and adults can look at autism from a strength-based perspective: finding things that all children share.”
While the non-profit group emphasizes that Julia is not representative of all kids with autism or who might have symptoms throughout the Autism Spectrum, there are traits unique to the muppet that the organization is hopeful will resonate with kids with autism and their parents and friends.
“Just as we look at all children as being unique, we should do the same thing when we’re looking at children with autism,” Betancourt said.
Stacy Gordon is the Phoenix-based puppeteer behind Julia, and there couldn't have been a more perfect match. Not only did Gordon spend many of her early adult years as a therapist working with kids with autism, she has a son with it as well. Her son is now 13 and has no interest in puppetry, though she said that she wished mightily that there had been a similar character in other kid shows so that her son might have been better understood by his peer group.
“The ‘Meet Julia’ episode is something that I wish my son’s friends had been able to see when they were small,” Gordon said. “I remember him having meltdowns and his classmates not understanding how to react.”
Gordon emphasized that she wanted to ensure that she got the role right, and hoped that the huge community of those friends and family members living with autism were proud of what she'd accomplished thus far.
"I come at this with a reverence," she said. "I don’t want to let the autism community down.”
The first Sesame Street episode to feature Julia will air April 10.