For nearly 50 years, Sesame Street has been an enduring fixture in the imaginations of children all over the world. First airing in 1969, the show was revolutionary in its day as it was one of the first television shows to integrate educational goals and school curriculum into its content. So ubiquitous was Sesame Street in children’s television programming, a 1996 survey revealed 95% of all pre-schoolers in the US had seen Sesame Street by the age of three.
Over the decades, the cast of characters has changed to reflect the changing face of the US as well as its broad international audience. While certain characters have remained staples on the show, such as Big Bird, an 8’2” yellow bird whose character is intended to represent the inquisitive and naïve nature of a six-year-old child, Sesame Street’s producers have always strived to introduce characters that help children to understand the diverse perspectives of the people around them and the value of inclusiveness.
With that mission in mind, Sesame Street introduced a character named Julia in 2015. Her first appearance was in an online digital storybook called Sesame Street and Autism: See the Amazing in All Children. In an episode that will air on US TV on April 10, airing a few days later on ABC in Australia, Julia, a Muppet with a bright red bob haircut, green eyes and autism, will be introduced to Big Bird in her first regular appearance on the syndicated version of the show. The first indication of Julia’s autism will be a reluctance to shake Big Birds hand, providing an opportunity for the other characters to explain autism to Big Bird in a way he can understand.
The team at Sesame Street have been very careful not to create a one size fits all representation of autism and worked closely with autism organisations in the US to determine which characteristics Julia should demonstrate and how they can be normalised for the children watching. Sesame Street writer, Christine Ferraro said it was important that autism wasn’t seen as just one thing as it’s different for every individual person with autism. “There is an expression that goes, ‘If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,'” Ferraro told 60 Minutes recently.
What makes the character more remarkable is the puppeteer tasked with bringing Julia to life, Stacey Gordon, has a son who has autism. “Had my son’s friends been exposed to his behaviours through something that they had seen on TV before they experienced them in the classroom, they might not have been frightened,” she told 60 Minutes. “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.”
The original goal of the online book in which Julia first appeared was to promote a better understanding of what the Autism Speaks advocacy group describes as “a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.” The show’s producers now hope to make Julia simply just another “part of the gang”.
Writer Christine Ferraro said of her goal for the character “I would love her to be not Julia, the kid on Sesame Street who has autism. I would like her to be just Julia.”