Ever since Sesame Street aired its first episode in 1969, it was clear that the show would aim to add diversity to television. The show was one of the first TV shows that educated children, and it did so with a diverse cast of both humans and Muppets. Now, nearly 50 years later, the show is continuing to prove that they are a forward-thinking and all-inclusive program by inviting a new Muppet to roam the sidewalks of Sesame Street: Julia, the first Muppet with autism.
While Julia’s entrance to the show has been met with support from both fans and the media so far, the journey from concept to character was not nearly as simple. The character first made her debut in Sesame Street’s online “Digital Storybook Series” back in 2015. However, writers for the show knew they eventually wanted her character to be included on the small screen; they just were not sure how to go about representing autism. Christine Ferraro, a veteran writer for the show, commented, “It’s tricky because autism is not one thing, because it is different for every single person who has autism”.
The struggle for this character did not lie with the autism diagnosis, but with Sesame Street’s desire to make Julia’s character as realistic as possible, while still making her relatable to their young audience. Autism has a number of characteristic traits, many of which were incorporated into Julia’s character, but there are many subtleties and nuances that autistic people exhibit that the show did not want to overlook.
While the writers and directors naturally spoke with a plethora of child psychologists and other experts in the field, it was Stacey Gordon, the puppeteer hired to play Julia, that helped the character truly come to life. Gordon is an expert on autism in her own way: she raises a son with the disorder. In casting her as the person behind the puppet, Sesame Street has provided themselves with the ultimate expert regarding a person with autism’s daily mannerisms and speech patterns. Thus, they are giving themselves the best possible chance at making this character real and authentic.
Having an expert play Julia has not only been a gift for Sesame Street, it has been equally beneficial and rewarding for Gordon herself. As a mother to a child with autism, Gordon has seen her son struggle at school and with people not being open-minded and accepting towards him.
“Had my son’s friends been exposed to his behaviors through something that they had seen on TV before they experienced them in the classroom, they might not have been frightened…And [they] would have known that he plays in a different way, and that that’s okay,” Gordon explained in an interview with “60 Minutes”. She is hopeful that the addition of Julia to the show will teach other kids early on in their lives that it is okay to be different, as long as we are aware and accepting of these differences.
The most important thing to remember about Julia’s addition to the show is that she is different, and luckily, Sesame Street did not attempt to hide these differences. When Julia is spoken to, she does not always respond right away. When she is overly emotional she flaps her arms. When the noise level becomes too loud for her, she throws a tantrum. However, Julia also enjoys playing with her friends and being silly, like any kid would.
While some may say that those with autism are “just like you and me,” this only rings true to an extent, because as with any diagnosis, there are certain characteristics unique to autism that the general population does not outwardly present. The writers’ interpretation of Julia does not only acknowledge these differences, but showcases them in a way that allows children to view their peers less as a diagnosis and more as a person that has a few differences from themselves.
With the rate of autism diagnoses increasing each year, Sesame Street’s addition of such a relevant character to their show is not only beneficial to themselves, but to all children and adults. Through Julia, they will be moving forward in their goal to educate children to be globally and socially aware, and will be providing a stronger standard of acceptance for all people and Muppets alike.
Emma Hungaski is an opinion contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.