“Sesame Street” just got a whole lot broader with its newest neighbor: Julia, a Muppet with autism.
The little girl Muppet with red hair and a favorite bunny clutched in her hand has been in “Sesame Street’s” online Digital Storybook series since 2015. But she’s making her TV debut surrounded by everybody’s favorite neighborhood gang on HBO and PBS in April.
The show’s creators hope the new character will help children better understand playmates who have autism, which is affecting more and more American kids. Children with autism will also have a Muppet they can identify with.
In Julia’s first episode, she experiences a bit of a glitch while meeting Big Bird. When the two are introduced by pals Abby and Elmo, Julia is hesitant to shake Big Bird’s hand. He’s sad and worried that Julia doesn’t like him, but Elmo explains that Julia has autism so she “does things a little differently.”
Julia’s designers were eager to use the new Muppet to express issues kids with autism often deal with, without turning her into some kind of standard model for everyone with the disorder.
“It’s tricky because autism is not one thing, because it is different for every single person who has autism,” writer Christine Ferraro told “60 Minutes.” “There’s a saying that if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
Still, the show’s creators wanted to exhibit certain behaviors through Julia that children with autism may exhibit. They consulted with organizations serving families dealing with autism to discuss what best to highlight.
Julia’s first episode not only focuses on her reluctance to engage with Big Bird, but also her sensitivity to loud noises and her excitability during a game.
Julia’s puppeteer, Stacey Gordon, has a son with autism. She wishes Julia had been around years ago when he was “Sesame Street” age.
“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.”