Ever since the series premier in 1969, Sesame Street has been making history as one of the first and greatest examples of kids’ educational television. But Sesame Street doesn’t just educate kids on reading and numbers, one of the greatest achievements of the show is its ability to teach kids acceptance and empathy by tackling real-world topics from divorce to race to incarceration and more. The muppets who live on Sesame Street have always promoted the same message: “We’re all different, but all the same.”
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Next month, Sesame Street will once again make history by introducing a new character to the Sesame Street gang: Julia, a little girl who has autism.
Julia was first introduced to Sesame Street fans in digital form in 2015 as a part of the Sesame Workshop’s initiative, “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.” The initiative included online resources for parents of kids who have autism as well as books, all of which starred Julia. On April 10th, Julia will appear on television for the first time alongside Elmo, Big Bird, and more.
But how will the show tackle the portrayal of autism? According to Christine Ferraro, a Sesame Street screenwriter, Julia was developed with great care.
“It’s tricky because autism is not one thing, because it is different for every single person who has autism,” Christine told reporter Lesley Stahl during an interview on 60 Minutes. “There’s an expression that goes ‘if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
She went on to reiterate that idea in the interview below, saying “When Big Bird asks Allen ‘What’s autism?’ Allen answers, ‘Well for Julia…’ and that’s important.”
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The hope is that Julia will de-stigmatize autism and create greater awareness and empathy. In other words, kids with autism who watch Sesame Street will see Julia and know they are not alone; kids and families who have not experienced autism will see Julia and begin to develop more understanding and acceptance.
For example, 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl got to meet Julia and the Sesame Street gang. She found that Big Bird’s feelings were hurt when Julia didn’t say hello to him and avoided eye contact, but Elmo explained to Big Bird that Julia has autism, and now they’re all friends.
Lesley: Big Bird, when you first met Julia, she didn’t answer you.
Big Bird: Yeah that’s right. And I thought that maybe she didn’t like me.
Elmo: Yeah, but you know, we had to explain to Big Bird that Julia likes Big Bird. It’s just that Julia has autism. So sometimes it takes her a little longer to do things.
Lesley: You’re explaining her, ‘cause you’ve come to understand her so well.
Elmo: Well– we’re pretty good at understanding people. We live with a grouch.
One mom who is particularly excited about Julia is puppeteer Stacey Gordon. When Stacey heard about auditions for the part, she rushed from her home in Phoenix to audition. Stacey is mom to a son with high-functioning autism, and now she is the puppeteer behind Julia.
She recalls how her son’s behavior initially frightened his peers who had never seen someone with autism before. She hopes that kids who watch Julia on Sesame Street– and see the rest of the gang loving her and befriending her– will be better prepared and more understanding when they meet people in real life with autism.
But ABC News Correspondent John Donovan might have said it best when he made this comment about Sesame Street’s wonderful new muppet: “A few years from now we’ll be thinking of Julia the girl with autism just as plain Julia, part of the gang on ‘Sesame Street.'”
Watch the video below for a sneak peak of Julia singing the Sesame Street theme with her friend Abby Cadabby.
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