Today is certainly a ‘sunny day’ with little or no clouds to sweep away with this fantastic news! For the first time in a decade, the classic children’s television show Sesame Street will be introducing a new Muppet.
Her name is Julia; and she’s a shy 4-year-old, who has a hobby for painting and picking flowers. When Julia speaks, she often echoes what she’s just heard her friends Abby and Elmo say. Julia has autism.
“The character Julia, she has wonderful drawing skills. She’s like a little budding artist,” said Rose Jochum, director of internal initiatives at the Autism Society of America, which characterizes itself as the nation’s oldest advocacy group for people with the disorder. “You know — autism — it brings wonderful gifts.”
Presenting Julia to the gang requires a bit more explanation of her differences and hidden talents for the other Muppets — and their young viewers. As Abby Cadabby (the 3-year-old fairy played by Leslie Carrara-Rudolph) explained in an interview with NPR. In one scene, Big Bird has to repeat himself to get her to listen.
“There’s so many people that have given her what she is. I’m just hoping to bring her the heart,” says Stacy Gordon, the veteran puppeteer selected to play the part.
The role of Julia has a personal dimension for Gordon: She says she used do therapeutic work for people with autism. And Gordon says her son is on the autism spectrum, too. She believes the show will be a great resource — for students with the disorder and for their playmates.
“Man, I really wish that kids in my son’s class had grown up with a Sesame Street that had modeling [of] the behavior of inclusion of characters with autism,” Gordon said.
Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president for U.S. social impact at parent company Sesame Workshop, has been helping plot the development of Julia for about three years. Sesame Workshop is a not-for-profit media company and an educational outfit that conducts its own research.
“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,” Betancourt says, “whether it’s economic or social emotional stresses or differences that they’re handling at the time.”
Parents of children with autism told officials at Sesame how important the show was for their kids. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, one in 68 American children have autism.
Sherrie Westin, an executive vice president at Sesame Workshop who oversaw the initiative, said the campaign quickly struck a chord.
“One of my favorite stories is a mother who said that she used the book to explain to her child that she had autism like Julia,” Westin said, shaking her head slightly as she teared up. “This became the tool for her to have a conversation with her 5-year-old daughter.”
“And you’ll love this. At the end her daughter said, ‘So I’m amazing too, right?’ ”
“We realized if we brought her to life appearing in Sesame Street on air as well, she would have even more impact [and] be able to reach even more children,” Westin said.
The character Julia will make her TV debut on April 10.
“It’s not like there is a typical example of an autistic child, but we do believe that [with] Julia, we worked so carefully to make sure that she had certain characteristics that would allow children to identify with her,” Westin said. “It’s what Sesame does best, you know: Reaching children, looking at these things through their lens and building a greater sort of sense of commonality.”