Sesame Street will soon introduce viewers to a Julia, new Muppet who has autism.
CBS' 60 Minutes was on set when Abby Cadabby and Elmo introduced Julia to Big Bird, who became confused when Julia didn't acknowledge him. Eventually, the four Muppets decided to play tag together. "Julia's so excited that she's jumping up and down. That's a thing that can be typical of some kids with autism," said Christine Ferraro, who has been a writer on Sesame Street for 25 years. "Then it turns into a game where they're all jumping like her. So, it was a very easy way to show that with a very slight accommodation they can meet her where she is."
Bringing Julia to the small screen was no easy feat, of course.
"I think the big discussion right at the start was, 'How do we do this? How do we talk about autism?'" Ferraro told Lesley Stahl. "It's tricky because autism is not one thing, because it is different for every single person who has autism. There is an expression that goes, 'If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism.'" The focus on autism began as social impact projects, which included an online animated storybook about a girl named Julia. They became so popular that Rollie Krewson was asked to create a Muppet for Julia, whose design required more consideration than previous puppets. "When she gets upset, she flaps her hands, so she has two separate sets of arms," he said. "...They would switch on set."
Stacey Gordon, whose son is on the autism spectrum, was cast as Julia's puppeteer.
According to Gordon, Julia is more than just a new character on a children's TV show. "It means that our kids are important enough to be seen in society. Having Julia on the show and seeing all of the characters treat her with compassion—and like her—it's huge," she explained. "It's important for kids without autism to see what autism can look like. 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. They might not have been worried when he cried. They would have known that he plays in a different way and that that's OK."
Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president for U.S. social impact at parent company Sesame Workshop, has been helping to develop the character for about three years. "Basically, in terms of vulnerable families, we're looking at families who may have particular stressors in their lives that are impacting their young children," she said on NPR's Morning Edition Monday, "whether it's economic or social emotional stresses or differences that they're handling at the time."
Julia will appear in two episodes in Sesame Street's current season (airing on HBO and PBS), and her screen time will increase in future seasons. "I would love her to be not Julia, the kid on Sesame Street who has autism," Ferraro said on 60 Minutes. "I would like her to be just Julia."