'Sesame Street' to introduce first autistic character

Julia first appeared as a character in a book, but will now feature in the popular kids' TV show

'Sesame Street' to introduce first autistic character

[ABC]

Sesame Street, the iconic American children’s TV show that has broadcast since 1969, will aim to teach children a different message with the debut of its newest Muppet Julia, who has autism.

Julia was first created by the Sesame Street Workshop in 2015 as part of an online-only digital book called Sesame Street & Autism: See the Amazing in All Children, which introduced the character during an afternoon of play with Elmo and Abby. Now the character will appear on the television show, joining the likes of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch in April.

Introducing a new friend

The show plans to debut the autistic Muppet with a scene showing young viewers how people living with spectrum issues may struggle in social settings. The scene will show Elmo and Abby Cadabby introducing Julia to Big Bird, where she will be reluctant to shake Big Bird’s hand. At that point, Elmo explains that since Julia has autism, “Sometimes it takes her a little longer to do things,” leading to all four exploring ways in which everyone can have fun together in a way that makes them feel comfortable.

The creation of Julia as Sesame Street’s first autistic character required great attention to detail by the production team, with her female gender supposed to turn the tide on what some autism researchers believe is under-diagnosis in girls. The producers worked with autism advocacy groups, psychologists, and families in order to properly portray a child with just some of the numerous characteristics of autism.

The design of the Muppet was a major concern, with her eyes needing to somehow appear both intense and friendly. Furthermore, Julia’s clothes are plain and free of any adorning buttons or bows.

The show also cast Stacey Gordon, an actress and mother whose son has autism, in the role of Julia. Gordon told the US current affairs programme 60 Minutes that she felt as though the role was tailor made for her.

Another first for Sesame Street

While Julia is a first for autistic representation in children’s programming, Sesame Street and its international spin-offs have never shied away from tackling real-world issues for younger viewers; in 1982, the show tackled the death of one of its human cast by having Big Bird grapple with the death of his friend Mr Hooper. The show also made Big Bird's imaginary friend Mr Snuffleupagus visible to its human cast to encourage younger viewers not to be afraid that adults would not believe them if they told them about things like abuse or inappropriate behaviour.

Two decades later, the South African version of the show brought Kami into the fold, as the first HIV+ character. In 2006, the Israeli iteration debuted Mahdoub, a five-year-old Arab character who speaks Hebrew, with Israeli children also meeting Sivan in 2009, a wheelchair-using character who first originated in Brazil.

On Moncrieff today, Sean spoke to Sherrie Westin, the Executive Vice President of Global Impact & Philanthropy at the Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organisation in charge of the show around the world. You can listen back to that interview in the podcast below:

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