What Sesame Street's Julia Wants Your Kids to Know About Autism
Since its launch in 1969, Sesame Street has been a trailblazer when it comes to showcasing diversity: tackling racism, featuring an HIV-positive Muppet, introducing Muppets whose parents are in jail, and including kids with disabilities as varied as Down syndrome to blindness and deafness. So it should come as no surprise that Julia, a 4-year-old Muppet with autism, joined the Sesame Street cast in 2017.
In honor of April being Autism Awareness month, Parents spoke to Jeanette Betancourt, Ed. D., the senior vice president for U.S. social impact at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street, to get a little insight into what's next for Julia and learn more about her message of inclusion and understanding.
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What made you decide to introduce a Muppet with autism?
Julia started as a character in Sesame Street’s “See Amazing in All Children” initiative, a nationwide initiative aimed at teaching young children about autism. We developed this wonderful story book introducing Julia as a character to her Sesame Street friends, explaining what autism was from a child’s perspective as a way to increase acceptance and awareness. The reaction from the autism community as well as the general public was so incredible, we took it as a call to action to bring Julia to life.
We wanted to make clear to our audience that autism impacts both boys and girls. When Sesame Street first started exploring a character with autism, one in 68 children were diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum (ASD). Now, it’s one in 59. This is now something so common that it’s highly likely that our audience will be exposed to someone with autism during their childhood.
We wanted to position Julia as someone who represented autism but did not stereotype it. In many ways, she’s just like other little girls, and what she does differently enhances her in a positive way. Our very first episode introducing Julia, for example, helped Big Bird understand what autism is and that Julia sometimes does things differently, but at the end, they all did an activity—playing tag—together. We wanted to foster a general message of acceptance and inclusion.
This April, you’ll be debuting Julia's family as part of your Autism Initiative. Why did you think it was so important to include them?
Family is something that’s important for all children, so we knew it was something our readers could relate to. We wanted to show that Julia has a neurotypical brother, Samuel, who loves soccer, that mom is an art teacher and that dad plays the saxophone, and that Julia has a wonderful dog, Rose.
But we also want to use her family as a way to showcase both the strengths and challenges that occur when there’s a child with special needs in the mix. Samuel, for example, is her sibling but also her advocate as well. The fact that he has a sister with autism affects him in both positive and more challenging ways, which we’ll explain to our audience in future episodes.
What impact has Julia had on viewers?
Many teachers now report that they’re experiencing much more inclusion and understanding in their own classrooms because of Julia. We also commissioned a study with Georgetown University Medical Center and found that our “See Amazing Initiative” reduces family stress, increases greater understanding of autism in the general community, and eases the anxiety of children with autism.
What do you think Julia wants kids to know about autism?
She’s like most other four-year old girls, and she likes to do all the things they do: being with her Sesame Street friends, singing, blowing bubbles. But she doesn’t like things that often don’t bother typical kids, like loud noises, hugging, or haircuts. She also communicates in different ways. Her verbal communication may be more limited, but she communicates very well with a talker.
But all of this doesn’t make her any more lacking as a friend. One of the storybooks we are releasing this month focuses on bullying. Children with autism are five times more likely to be bullied than their typical peers, but in this case, Julia isn’t the one being bullied but is standing up for another friend with autism. We thought it was really important to represent her from a strength-based perspective.
Julia may have autism, but it doesn’t define her. She may just require some things to be done differently, and that’s okay.