“Sesame Street” introduces first autistic character

“Sesame Street” recently announced the addition of a new character on the show—Julia, the first Muppet with autism. She will make her TV debut on April 10. (Zach Hyman/AP Photo)

Someone new just moved to 123 Sesame Street. Julia—a bright orange-haired, green-eyed little Muppet—is the newest addition to the family and to “Sesame Street’s” tradition of reflecting reality and tackling big issues. Julia is the first autistic character on the classic children’s television show. 

Julia has been a part of the Sesame Street world via its online storybooks, in which Elmo explains that Julia’s autism means that she does things a little differently than the other Muppets. Her character was so popular, however, that “Sesame Street’s” creator decided to include her in the television show as well, according to CNN.

The creators aim to emphasize that autism can manifest in several different ways. Julia has qualities that are very specific to her, not to all children with autism. For example, she does not like loud sounds, flaps her hands when upset and prefers not to make eye contact. 

Parents had a chance to meet Julia in a “60 Minutes” episode in which she, along with her fellow Muppets and show writer Christine Ferraro, were interviewed by correspondent Lesley Stahl. In the special, Big Bird explains that when he first met Julia, he believed that she did not like him, due to the fact that she did not make eye contact. 

But everyone’s favorite furry red monster and Julia’s long-time friend Elmo is quick to jump in, saying, “Yeah, but you know, we had to explain to Big Bird that Julia likes Big Bird. It’s just that Julia has autism. So sometimes it takes her a little longer to do things.” He adds, “We really like Julia. She’s really special to us.”

The show’s goal—as it always has been—is acceptance. When Julia acts differently than her friends, fellow Muppet Abby Cadabby replies, “That’s just Julia being Julia.” 

But her autism does not define Julia—she’s also a budding artist who loves to paint, emphasizing that autism “brings wonderful things,” according to Rose Jochum, director of internal initiatives at the Autism Society of America. The Sesame Workshop—the company that runs “Sesame Street”—consulted a handful of autism groups in order to learn how to express autism to children. 

Sesame Workshop has also spearheaded the campaign “See Amazing in All Children,” which provides families of children with autism with materials to learn. Julia is just one example of these tools; also offered are videos for both parents and kids, daily routine cards and storybooks. The not-for-profit company has found that the initiative has resulted in many more parents and children being able to identify with the characters they see on screen. 

In addition, they found that after using the materials and being exposed to Julia, children that are not on the autism spectrum are more accepting of those that are. 

And so with Julia, “Sesame Street” is one step closer to their top priority: “Reaching children, looking at these things through their lens and building a greater sense of commonality.” 

Julia’s television debut will be on April 10 on PBS Kids and HBO.