Folks on the children’s television show Sesame Street have a way of making everyone feel accepted.
That certainly goes for Julia, a Muppet youngster with blazing red hair, bright green eyes — and autism. Rather than being treated like an outsider, which too often is the plight of kids on the spectrum, Julia is one of the gang.
In a scene being taped for airing next season, these Muppet chums have been challenged to spot objects shaped like squares or circles or triangles.
“You’re lucky,” says Abby to Grover. “You have Julia on your team, and she is really good at finding shapes!”
For more than a year, Julia has existed in print and digital illustrations as the centerpiece of a multifaceted initiative by Sesame Workshop called “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.”
The goal is to promote a better understanding of what the Autism Speaks advocacy group describes as “a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.”
— Autism Speaks (@autismspeaks) December 16, 2016
Julia makes her TV debut on Sesame Street in an episode airing April 10 on both the American Public Broadcasting Service and HBO. Additional videos featuring Julia will be available online.
Sesame Street has tackled other topics, often with new characters. A 6-year-old named Zari, for example, appeared last year as the first Afghan Muppet.
Developing Julia and all the other components of this campaign has required years of consultation with organizations, experts and families within the autism community, according to Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president of U.S. Social Impact.
While Julia represents the full range of children on the spectrum, she isn’t meant to typify each one of them: “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 says.
It was with keen interest that Stacey Gordon first learned of Julia more than a year ago. “I said, ‘If she’s ever a puppet, I want to BE Julia!'”
Gordon, a Phoenix-based puppeteer, also has a son with autism, and, before she started her family, was a therapist to youngsters on the spectrum.
“It is so much fun to be on set with everyone, and get to play up all the positive things I’ve seen with the kids that I’ve worked with,” Gordon says. “At the same time, I come at this with a reverence. I don’t want to let the autism community down.”