Sesame Street puts autism in the spotlight with new puppet
That certainly goes for Julia, a Muppet youngster with blazing red hair, bright green eyes — and autism. Rather than being treated like an outsider, which too often is the plight of kids on the spectrum, Julia is one of the gang.
For more than a year, Julia has existed in print and digital illustrations as the centerpiece of a multifaceted initiative by Sesame Workshop called "Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children."
She has been the subject of a storybook released along with videos, e-books, an app and website. The goal is 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 behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences."
But now Julia has been brought to life in fine Muppet fettle. She makes her TV debut on "Sesame Street" in the "Meet Julia" episode airing April 10 on both PBS and HBO. Additional videos featuring Julia will be available online.
Developing Julia and all the other components of this campaign has required years of consultation with organizations, experts and families within the autism community, according to Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop's senior vice president of US Social Impact.
"In the US, one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder," she says. "We wanted to promote a better understanding and reduce the stigma often found around these children. We're modeling the way both children and adults can look at autism from a strength-based perspective: finding things that all children share."
Julia is at the heart of this effort. But while she represents the full range of children on the spectrum, she isn't meant to typify each one of them: "Just as we look at all children as being unique, we should do the same thing when we're looking at children with autism," Betancourt says.
In the introductory segment, Julia is having fun with Abby and Elmo when Big Bird walks up. He wants to be her new friend, but she doesn't speak to him. He thinks she doesn't like him.
"She does things just a little differently, in a Julia sort of way," Abby informs him.
Julia, chuckling, then displays a different-but-fun way of playing tag, and everyone joins in. But when a siren wails, she covers her ears and looks stricken.
"She needs to take a break," Big Bird's human friend Alan calmly explains. Soon, all is well and play resumes.