The newest muppet on Sesame Street, Julia, is autistic. She has orange hair, green eyes, and at times takes long to answer a question.
The newest introduction comes with Sesame Street working with organizations such as Autism Speaks and Autism Self Advocacy to address issues faced by children suffering from autism. A new campaign, “See Amazing in All Children,” was launched and muppet Abby Cadabby could be heard in a YouTube video, saying, “Lots of kids have autism and that just means their brains work a little differently.”
According to Michael Robb, Director of Research for Common Sense Media, an organization that evaluates media whose audience is predominantly children, says that the latest move initiated by Sesame Street is “pretty groundbreaking.” He says, “It can be difficult to start a conversation about children with disabilities. It’s even harder when that difference isn’t visible.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that autism is more common in boys than girls. While 1 in 68 American children are affected by autism, 1 in 42 boys are prone to the disease while for girls the same finding stands at 1 in 189, which is almost five times as less common in boys. “We made sure she was a girl namely because autism is seen so much more often in boys,” Sherrie Westin, Sesame’s executive vice president, said. “We wanted to make it clear that girls can be on the spectrum, too… We’re trying to eliminate misconceptions, and a lot of people think that only boys have autism.”
Sesame Street was also at a risk of facing criticism for using a certain set of traits in one person to represent autism – when in fact children suffering from autism display different and a range of traits. According to LA Times, Autism Speaks says that autism is a syndrome that calls for research to help mitigate its effects, while according to Autism Self-Advocacy Network autism is a way expressing oneself differently than others.
“Sesame can be a great convener of different interests,” Westin said. “We were able to bring people at opposite ends of the spectrum, pun intended, from Autism Speaks, to the Autism Self-Advocacy Network. Those groups see certain things differently, but what they had in common is they wanted to give families and children tools.” Sesame Street’s initiative was supported by both groups.
Julia’s character has been incorporated into the show to help spread awareness about autism. Jeanette Betancourt, the senior vice president of community and family engagement at Sesame Workshop, said, “Children with autism are five times more likely to get bullied. And with one in 68 children having autism, that’s a lot of bullying. Our goal is to bring forth what all children share in common, not their differences. Children with autism share in the joy of playing and loving and being friends and being part of a group.”
As part of the initiative, a story called “We’re Amazing 1, 2, 3” was released on the “Sesame Street” website. Elmo explains in the story why Julia behaves and reacts differently. “Elmo’s daddy told Elmo that Julia has autism,” Elmo says in the story. “So she does things a little differently. Sometimes Elmo talks to Julia using fewer words and says the same thing a few times.”