Sesame Street is providing a different kind of lesson with the introduction of its newest muppet, Julia, who has autism. The character will arrive in the neighbourhood come April.
Julia was first introduced in 2015 as part of an online-only Digital Storybook story called "Sesame Street and Autism: See the amazing in all children", in which she has a play-date with Elmo and Abby. Now the fully-realised muppet version of Julia will feature on the long-running children’s show. Her being female is thought to be particularly significant, since some autism researchers believe the condition is under-diagnosed in girls.
When Julia first appears on the show she’ll be introduced by Elmo and Abby Cadabby to Big Bird. She’ll be hesitant to shake the friendly yellow giant’s hand, but Elmo explains to Big Bird that since Julia has autism, “Sometimes it takes her a little longer to do things.” From there, the four friends learn how to play together in a way that everyone has fun.
The creative team behind Sesame Street’s newest addition were sensitive to the complex nature of the condition. Christine Ferraro, a writer for the series, said, “It’s tricky because autism is not one thing; it is different for every single person who has autism.” The team consulted with autism organisations, educators and families on how to be portray a child with autism and explain the condition to young children.
In a 60 Minutes overtime clip, Leslie Stahl speaks to Rollie Krewson, a puppet designer known as “Elmo’s mum”. Krewson thought through every detail of Julia’s muppet. “Her eyes had to be a certain way because she has to have an intense look, but she has to look friendly,” Krewson told Stahl.
Other details included making sure Julia had a short haircut that would not get in her eyes or mouth, and clothes free of distracting bows and buttons. The muppet even has different sets of eyes, so that she can close them when she needs time to calm down, and a set of arms that can flap wildly if she does get overwhelmed.
The puppeteer who plays Julia, Stacey Gordon, also happens to have a son with autism. Gordon explained, “As the parent of a child with autism, I wished that it had come out years before, when my own child was at the Sesame Street age.”
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