The Muppet gang will welcome a new pal named Julia to TV’s friendliest street next month.
Debuting on Sesame Street April 10, Julia, who will be recognizable by her bright red hair, is a little different than the show's other characters. She’s quieter, and has a knack for spotting shapes.
She’s also autistic.
The goal, Sesame workshop says, is to not only help children understand a character who may resemble their friends and classmates on the autism spectrum, but also to show kids with autism diagnoses a character to whom they can relate.
"In the US, one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder," Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop's senior vice president of US Social Impact, told the Associated Press. "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."
This isn’t the first time the Sesame Street gang has grappled with issues of diversity and worked to destigmatize other heavy topics. In the past, the show has tackled topics including AIDS, divorce, and feminism, pushing the boundaries of children’s TV programming to address concerns and scenarios that many young children face.
And this won’t be Julia’s complete debut with Sesame Street. For the past year and a half, she’s appeared in videos and e-books, and also on show’s app and website.
But now, she’s becoming a regular member of the Muppet gang, making her TV debut in an episode titled “Meet Julia,” slated to air on PBS and HBO.
To get Julia right, the show met with with organizations, experts, and families within the autism community for several years. Stacey Gordon, a puppeteer who has a son with autism, will play her role.
The episode shows Julia playing with fellow Muppets Abby and Elmo when Big Bid enters the scene. He tries to befriend Julia, but she doesn’t speak, a reaction that makes Big Bird think she’s rude or doesn’t want to play with him.
"She does things just a little differently, in a Julia sort of way," Abby tells him.
The group then plays a game of tag, with some twists brought on by Julia. The episode also addresses her sensitivity to loud sounds, which is common among children on the spectrum and can lead to meltdowns, which are sometimes confusing for their peers.
Those behind the episode hope that the scenes will help other children to understand and befriend autistic classmates, reducing their isolation in social situations.
"The 'Meet Julia' episode is something that I wish my son's friends had been able to see when they were small," Ms. Gordon told the Associated Press. "I remember him having meltdowns and his classmates not understanding how to react."
This report includes material from the Associated Press.