On April 10, Sesame Street will introduce Julia, a puppet with autism, to its viewers around the world.
While Julia was introduced online in 2016 and has appeared in books, she will now join the cast of the wildly popular educational puppet show, along with Elmo, Big Bird and Grover, in an effort to show kids and their parents what autism looks like and how to support autistic people.
Autism awareness and advocacy groups are cheering Julia’s addition. “We think it’s a terrific next step for Sesame Street,” said Lisa Goring, chief program and marketing officer at Autism Speaks, a US advocacy organization.
One in 68 children in the US has autism, according to the US Centers for Disease Control, up 30% from 2012 estimates. Since it is a spectrum disorder, Goring says, no two cases of autism look exactly the same. The disorder can affect communication and social interactions, and can be characterized by repetitive behaviors or intense interests.
Julia showcases some of these tendencies. When she meets Big Bird, she ignores him. Elmo helpfully explains that since Julia has autism, “sometimes it takes her a little longer to do things.” When the group plays a game of tag, Julia flaps her arms. Rather than make fun of her or be scared by her unusual reaction, the kids make it part of the game.
Sesame Street worked with 250 autism organizations and experts, including Autism Speaks, as well as its own regular child psychologists to develop Julia. The character made her debut on a clip on 60 Minutes, a news magazine show on CBS News.
Julia’s puppeteer, Stacey Gordon, has an autistic son, and explained how important it is for kids with the disorder to see themselves reflected in popular culture—and for their peers to see it.
“Had my son’s friends been exposed to his behaviors through something that they had seen on TV before they experienced them in the classroom, they might not have been frightened,” she told CBS.
The decision to make the character a girl may be a nod to the concern of some experts that autism is under-diagnosed in girls. The CDC found that 1 in 42 boys, versus 1 in 189 girls, were diagnosed in 2014. (This story highlights what autism looks like in girls, and why we may be missing or misdiagnosing it).
Julia will debut on the US channels HBO and PBS, was well as on Cartoonito UK, Australia’s ABC network, and Mexico’s Televisa. A worldwide rollout is planned within a year.
Sesame Street writer Christine Ferraro told 60 Minutes that she hopes Julia becomes less of a novelty on the show. “I would love her to be not Julia, the kid on Sesame Street who has autism,” she said. “I would like her to be just Julia.”