Meet Julia: Sesame Street’s newest muppet, who has autism. While Julia has not yet hit children’s television sets, her impact on the children’s programming industry has already been immense. The new muppet is described as “a preschool girl with autism who does things a little differently when playing with her friends.” Julia is also set to star in her own “digital storybook” called “We’re Amazing, 1,2,3.”
Julia is the product of Sesame Street’s newest initiative to stop the stigma associated with autism spectrum disorders. Sesame Street has worked with organizations like Autism Speaks and Autism Self Advocacy to introduce their campaign “See Amazing in All Children,” which aims to set a good connotation for kids with autism. After reviewing Julia’s new segment, critics have concluded that the show is pretty groundbreaking, as it helps children understand how kids with autism are different in a good way.
The show puts autism in terms that kids can understand, reflects the qualities that Julia shares with other kids and explains how simple accommodations can help Julia. For example, in “We’re Amazing, 1,2,3,” Elmo, an iconic Sesame Street character, introduces Julia to another muppet, Abby. When Abby meets Julia, Julia doesn’t seem to acknowledge Abby or respond to her requests to join her and Elmo during their playtime. When Abby asks Elmo why Julia doesn’t seem to like her, Elmo explains that Julia has autism, which can make communication hard for her. This is a trend throughout the short story, as Julia unveils unique qualities that she has and Elmo helps the reader to understand these traits. Julia helps to normalize autism and will hopefully reduce the number of children with autism who are bullied. As Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president of U.S. social impact for Sesame Street, puts it, “children with autism share in the joy of playing and loving and being friends and being part of a group.”
Despite having the go ahead from most of the autism advocacy community, Sesame Street is still getting some backlash from some unhappy audience members. Many are displeased because of Sesame Street’s decision to depict autism through the use of a girl muppet. 1 in 42 boys are diagnosed with autism, compared to the 1 in 189 girls who are diagnosed. This creates an inaccuracy for some people, as autism affects boys in greater numbers. The show’s executive vice president Sherrie Westin understands viewers’ concerns. “We made sure she was a girl namely because autism is seen so much more often in boys,” Westin told the Los Angeles Times. “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.”
While the portrayal of autism through content is controversial, autism itself is also grounds for debate. While Autism Speaks considers autism as a syndrome that calls for research to help lessen its effects, other organizations view autism as an alternative way of expressing oneself.
Julia aims to educate on all traits of the spectrum. Some of these traits include difficulty with communication, sensitivity to noise, trouble keeping eye contact and interests in sensation and texture. Though Julia cannot touch on all the aspects of autism, she will do her best in attempting to educate the next generation on the uniqueness of their peers. This step is not only big for the autism community, but also for kids in the next generation.