“Sesame Street” has always boasted a diverse cast, from an unusually large bird to monsters of all colors, and it’s set to become even more so with the introduction of Julia, a Muppet with autism.
Although the little girl Muppet, who has red hair and a favorite bunny named Fluffster, has been in Sesame Street’s online Digital Storybook series for more than a year, she’s finally making her TV debut on HBO and PBS in April.
The show’s creators hope the new character will help children better understand friends and classmates with autism, which is becoming increasingly prevalent (now affects 1 in 68 children and 1 in 42 boys). Children with autism can also take heart that there is a Muppet to which they can relate.
“The big question was, what do we talk about? Because with autism, it’s such a range and there are so many different ways autism affects people,” explains Sesame Street writer Christine Ferraro to 60 Minutes. “And there’s no way we could possibly show everything.”
So the show’s creators consulted with organizations serving families dealing with autism to discuss what they should highlight. Then they picked “one lane” in trying to show what it’s like to be a child with autism, with the understanding that Julia doesn’t represent every child with the disorder.
In her first episode, Julia is hesitant to shake Big Bird’s hand. He’s sad and concerned that Julia doesn’t like him, but Elmo explains Julia has autism so she “does things a little differently.” She also exhibits sensitivity to loud noises and excitability during a game.
Julia’s puppeteer, Stacey Gordon, has a son with autism and wishes Julia had been around years ago when he was watching the show.
“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 told “60 Minutes.” “And [they] would have known that he plays in a different way, and that that’s okay.”