Over the years, Sesame Street has been a pioneer in holding up a mirror to the lived experiences of children and giving them a friendly reflection of themselves and their environments. The very basis of the setting of Sesame Street was the idea that it should be a recognizable street scene for the urban children the show originally sought to reach. In the decades since, Sesame Street has evolved to include characters and situations that speak to children of all kinds.
The latest new Muppet character moving into this most familiar street on television is Julia. Julia first appeared as a digital character, a playmate to the preschool-aged Muppets Elmo and Abby.
What’s distinct about Julia is that she has autism.
Julia was introduced to the wider world this weekend on 60 Minutes. It should be noted that I’ve anthropomorphised Muppets so completely that I’m actually sitting here worried about how Julia handled the stress of the interview, because that’s a lot of sensory input for a kid on the spectrum. I have to keep reminding myself that Julia is, in fact, a puppet. I imagine this concern was shared by Stacey Gordon, the puppeteer who plays Julia as well. She is the parent of a child with autism herself.
Fortunately, Julia had friends Elmo, Abby, and Big Bird to explain to the 60 Minutes crew why Julia was being so quiet around new people. They, and Julia, will give the Sesame Street audience a portrayal of autism that will help children better understand their friends and classmates on the spectrum.
As you might expect, Sesame Street took a lot of care in how they portrayed Julia. They worked with autism advocates, teachers, and parents of kids on the spectrum to learn about the many ways autism presents. From that, they created this character who they say represents one child with autism, not a general description of autism.
Christine Ferraro, a writer for the show, told Vulture, "It's tricky because autism is not one thing, because it is different for every single person who has autism.”
Julia will take up regular residence on Sesame Street in April.