On a sunny day, autistic muppet Julia made her debut on “Sesame Street.” .
Julia is a bouncy little girl with bright orange hair and a tiny toy bunny, Fluffster. She loves to play and hates loud noises. Like so many others who live on “Sesame Street,” she is a Muppet.
But Julia won’t be just the new kid in town when she makes her first appearance on the venerable children’s program Monday (8 a.m.) on HBO, HBO Family and PBS. She’s a 4-year-old with autism who made her first appearance as a digital character in 2015 as part of Sesame Workshop’s online social impact initiative, “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing Things in All Children.”
Aimed at viewers ages 2-5, the initiative is the result of years of research, said Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop’s executive vice president of Global Social Impact.
In the episode, Muppets Elmo, Abby Cadabby and Julia are painting when Big Bird strolls by. He’s puzzled by Julia’s behavior, but Alan (Alan Muraoka) helps him understand. “She does things a little differently, in a Julia sort of way,” Abby adds.
“ ‘Sesame Street’ has a long history of looking at trends and issues from the perspective of a child, and for many years we were noticing increasing numbers of children being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD),” Ms. Westin said.
“We made a conscious decision that this was an issue we needed to address.”
Educators, autism advisory groups and child psychologists were among experts brought to help research what would become “See Amazing in All Children.”
“The response from the autism community was so tremendous, we felt we needed to do more with Julia, and that led to discussions around bringing her to life as an actual Muppet on the show,” Ms. Westin said.
In her debut, Julia displays some characteristics often associated with autism: she flaps her arms, doesn’t immediately answer when addressed, and when she hears a fire truck siren, she coves her ears and becomes agitated.
Ms. Westin said Julia is not meant to represent all children on the spectrum, of course, but perhaps someone in the medium range many would be able to relate to.
“If you have been around the autism community, there is a saying that ‘If you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve seen one child with autism,’” she said.
Kristin Gallagher is director of family services for the Autism Center of Pittsburgh. The mother of two children with autism, she said she and many other parents are familiar with Julia through the digital initiative.
“I feel that making children aware of what autism is, at an early age, is very important. … We are learning from an early age that not everybody is the same.
“This is autism and this is what it looks like. So if you grow up with it, you’re used to it, versus meeting somebody with autism in middle school and thinking ‘What is this?’” Miss Gallagher said.
One in 68 American children has been diagnosed with autism and 75 percent of children diagnosed are boys. Making the new “Sesame Street” character a girl was a conscious decision to educate the public that girls also are affected, Ms. Westin said.
There will be two episodes featuring Julia’s story this season.