Sesame Street’s new Muppet with autism is part of the show’s bigger, empathic agenda

Since Sesame Street launched in 1969, it’s been steadily expanding its educational agenda. The earliest episodes were simple, with a focus on helping young viewers get an early start on learning letters, numbers, shapes, and basic vocabulary words. Over the past four decades plus, the team behind the show has progressively gotten more ambitious about addressing social issues as well, preparing kids to interact with one another on the playground and in school. Sesame Street’s latest initiative in that direction is a puppet character with autism: Julia, a 4-year-old girl first introduced in a Sesame Street picturebook, and now joining the cast of the show. Her inclusion on the television series is part of a program called See Amazing In All Children, which is aimed at helping parents and neurotypical kids understand different aspects of autistic behavior, interact with children on the spectrum, and accept other kids’ differences in general.

Julia is due to join the show on April 10, but she’s already been launched online. In one early sketch, she makes and pops bubbles with series regular Abby Cadabby, a vocal, encouraging 3-year-old who praises Julia’s problem-solving. In another video, Big Bird greets Julia and assumes she doesn’t like him because she’s too absorbed in coloring to interact with him. One of the show’s adult characters has to explain the autistic spectrum to Big Bird so he understands Julia’s reaction, and why she’s less verbal or interactive than some of the Muppets he’s used to. The skits are designed to help kids understand different ways autistic kids might approach play or socialization.

Sesame Street doesn’t often introduce new characters — or eliminate old ones, though a few of them have drifted onto and off of the show, and the show made headlines in 2016 by letting go of three of its veteran human performers. Back in 2013, the show addressed the impact of incarceration on kids by introducing a new character whose father was in jail, and building skits around his feelings. In other countries where the show airs, the show has included characters relevant to local issues. Afghanistan got Zari, an ambitious young girl Muppet, to counteract prejudice against women getting educations. South Africa has Kami, an HIV-positive character. The Palestinian version of the show, now independently produced, has its own cast of characters designed to help kids navigate local tensions. Julie is just the latest in an expanding stable of characters designed to represent the broad range of the human experience, and how it trickles down to children.

Children’s Television Workshop, which produces Sesame Street, recently introduced the character via a video that explains the research that went into creating Julia. It was a complicated project, since autism manifests in a wide variety of ways in different people. But one particularly interesting note from the intro video: Julia’s puppeteer, Stacey Gordon, has an autistic son herself, and sees this character as a chance to help the public understand him, and other children like him.

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