Classic children’s television show Sesame Street is continuing to evolve. A digital and print storybook has introduced a new character who is an old friend of Elmo’s, has orange hair, and never looks others straight in the eyes. Julia is different because she is a girl with autism.
When Elmo’s friend Abby meets Julia, she has questions. When Julia doesn’t talk to her right away, she worries that Julia does not like her. Julia gets upset over loud noises and Abby doesn’t understand why.
Also, Julia spins the wheels on toy cars around and around. And she swings her arms up and down when she gets excited. Julia does not demonstrate every characteristic of autism, but children with autism will be able to see themselves in her and other children can learn about autism at the same time.
The New York Times’ KJ Dell’Antonia says the Sesame Workshop has been studying autism for years, and they wanted to be sure that they presented an autistic child in as precise and positive a way as possible.
Julia is an authentic character in another way because girls are not represented in the autism world as often as boys. And Julia is well-rounded. She is different, without being ‘weird,’ said Chrissy George, the mother of a daughter with autism.
Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s vice president of outreach and educational practices, says Julia will not be visiting Sesame Street right away.
“We’re looking to do this in a very thoughtful fashion,” she says. “We want to hear back from the autism community about what other resources would be helpful, whether we should animate her further or offer video content.”
Characters with disabilities have made their way to Sesame Street before, but for now Julia is only a part of Sesame Street’s Autism Initiative entitled “See Amazing in All Children.” Online and on the program’s app, parents will find Julia’s book, works by young artists on the autism spectrum, activity cards, and other resources.
Julia was introduced digitally because families with autistic children often use digital content with their kids. Fortune’s Claire Groden quotes Sherrie Westin, executive vice president of global impacts and philanthropy for Sesame Workshop, as saying, “We want parents and children to understand that autism isn’t an uncomfortable topic.” A diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder occurs in one in every 68 children in the US, according to the CDC.
Sesame Street introduced an online character similar to Julia in 2013. His name was Alex, and his dad was in prison.
Rachel, writing for Parent Herald, reports that Julia is a preschooler, as Julia’s online book, “We’re Amazing, 1,2,3!” explains.
“Children with autism are five times more likely to get bullied,” said Betancourt. “Our goal is to bring forth what all children share in common, not their differences. Children with autism share in the joy of playing and loving and being friends and being part of a group.”
One in 42 boys are diagnosed with autism compared to 1 in 189 girls. Joy Resmovits, writing for the Los Angeles Times, asks why, if the autism diagnosis affects more male children than female children, did Sesame Street decide their new character would be a female child? Westin says the program wanted to make it clear that girls can be autistic since many people think autism affects only boys.