Written by Erin Lobner. Media by Bre Pollitt.
Odds are, one of your favorite childhood shows (or at least one you watched) was “Sesame Street”. The show has nearly 50 seasons and teaches valuable lessons to children in over 150 countries. Sesame Workshop’s mission is “to help kids grow smarter, stronger, and kinder”. One of the ways they accomplish this mission is by including unique characters such as Julia, a new Muppet with autism.
Autism is on the rise around the world. The CDC reports that approximately 1 in 68 children have it. While it can be a difficult disorder to understand, Autism Speaks, one of the largest support sources for the autism community, defines it as “a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences”. These are the common characteristics of autism. However, it manifests differently in individuals.
A popular saying in the autism community is “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”. The producers of “Sesame Street” want to keep that saying in mind as they bring Julia to the screen. Christine Ferraro, one of the writers, shared that quote in a conversation with CBS. Julia’s puppeteer, Stacey Gordon. She strongly connects to the role because her son has autism. When asked what it meant to her to see a child with autism on “Sesame Street” she replied,
It means that our kids are important enough to be seen in society.”
Gordon says it’s “huge” to see the other characters on “Sesame Street” interact compassionately with Julia, even when things like her sensitivity to noise and lacking interpersonal skills create atypical situations.
The producers’ decision to create Julia’s character was largely based on the increasing prevalence of autism. They want children around the world to understand their classmates who have it–to somewhat normalize what is now a common condition. They also wanted children with autism to have a character they can relate to. In the first episode, Julia hesitates to shake hands with Big Bird, and he becomes sad and concerned that Julia doesn’t like him. However, Elmo demonstrates the attitude of acceptance by explaining that Julia “does things a little differently” because she has autism.
Sesame Workshop chose the right time to introduce Julia to “Sesame Street”. The first episode with Julia is set to premier in April, which is Autism Awareness Month. Across the country and around the globe, supporters will display puzzle pieces on t-shirts, necklaces, and ribbons. The puzzle piece represents autism because each person with autism is different, and also because of the complexity and mystery of the still-incurable condition. On April 2, supporters will also participate in Light It Up Blue, where landmarks will be flooded in blue light and people will wear blue clothing to raise awareness.
You might have thought that your “Sesame Street” watching days were long behind you. However, I must encourage you to tune in one more time on April 10 to show support for their inclusion of a special new character. If you want to help out others with autism, make sure to check out Autism Speaks and participate in Light It Up Blue!