‘Julia does things differently’: Sesame Street’s muppet with autism

Through new character, children will learn not to be frightened by certain behaviour

Julia, a character with autism, will make her Sesame Street debut on April 10th, on both PBS and HBO. Photograph: Zach Hyman/Sesame Workshop via AP

Julia, a character with autism, will make her Sesame Street debut on April 10th, on both PBS and HBO. Photograph: Zach Hyman/Sesame Workshop via AP

 

Children’s TV favourite Sesame Street has added a new character to its ensemble, an orange-haired muppet named Julia, who has autism.

In her first episode, Julia is introduced to the large, inquisitive wild fowl Big Bird. She ignores him, causing him to feel hurt, until the other muppets explain, “She does things just a little differently.”

One in 68 children in the US is diagnosed with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A recent paper from the Irish National Council for Special Education said that it was as high as one in 65 school children in Ireland. It is considered to be under-diagnosed in girls (hence Julia’s gender).

Julia’s puppeteer, Stacey Gordon, who has a son with autism, told the 60 Minutes programme: “Had my son’s friends been exposed to his behaviours through something they had seen on TV before they experienced them in the classroom, they might not have been frightened.”

Julia’s debut happens against a backdrop in which Sesame Street’s home station, the publicly-funded PBS, is consistently endangered by proposed cutbacks from conservative policy makers. The muppets in Washington do not like the muppets of PBS, a channel they see as an overly-expensive luxury favoured by the coastal elite.

This is despite all evidence (perhaps Count Von Count could help them look at the figures?). In 2015, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that Sesame Street was a very effective low-cost educational supplement for children in economically disadvantaged areas.

The Future of Children, a joint report from Princeton university and the Brookings Institute, found that children who watched Sesame Street had more inclusive social attitudes than those who did not. (That said, if you’re a Republican lawmaker you might prefer a show that glorifies the ham-fisted privatisation of public services, like, say, Paw Patrol.)

Sesame Street has always had progressive motivations. It was created in 1966 when television producer Joan Ganz Cooney and vice president of the Carnegie foundation Lloyd Morrisett conceived of a children’s programme based on the latest educational research. It would eventually be populated by the late Jim Henson’s puppets and would “master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them”.

Julia is to make her debut in April, when she will join an array of much loved characters including the aforementioned avian worry-wart Big Bird, bin-dwelling misanthrope Oscar the Grouch, obsessively numerate aristocrat Count Von Count, gluttonous baked goods aficionado Cookie Monster and, last, but not least, co-dependent alternative-lifestyle pioneers Ernie and Bert.

Yeah, it’s a good group. Julia should feel at home there.