“I thought that maybe she didn’t like me,” Big Bird told “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl, in a recent special about Sesame Street’s newest resident.
Elmo was quick to chime in: “Yeah, but you know, we had to explain to Big Bird that Julia likes Big Bird,” he added. “It’s just that Julia has autism. So sometimes it takes her a little longer to do things.”
It is through this spirit of acceptance and friendship that “Sesame Street,” the much-heralded children’s show, hopes to promote understanding about autism to a new generation. One in 68 children in the United States has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though there is not a one-size-fits-all definition of autism, the CDC notes that the developmental disability can cause social, communication and behavioral challenges.
“In writing Julia for Sesame Street episode, the big question was, what do we talk about?” show writer Christine Ferraro told the Associated Press. “Because with autism, there’s such a range and there’s so many different ways that autism affects people, and there’s no way we could possibly show everything. … So we had to pick one lane and go in it.”
The show announced Julia’s arrival on social media Monday, following the “60 Minutes” special on CBS Sunday, to overwhelmingly positive response.
“Through Julia, we aim to show that all kids are amazing, and that all kids can be friends. #SeeAmazing,” the show tweeted.
In “Meet Julia,” the episode that airs April 10, the adult character of Alan is careful to frame his responses to questions about Julia’s autism as what that means “for Julia.”
At one point in her first episode, Julia gets upset by a siren, covering her ears; Alan simply explains to the other Muppets that Julia doesn’t like loud noises.
Constructing a new Sesame Street character with autism presented a few challenges. Because Julia flaps her hands when she gets upset — a behavior that is not uncommon among those with autism — her Muppet required two separate sets of arms: ones that could flap and others that didn’t, according to CBS.
Emotionally, however, the puppeteer behind Julia has felt like she has been preparing for the role for years. Stacey Gorden, a Phoenix-based puppeteer, has a son who has autism, and used to work as a therapist to children on the autism spectrum.
“The ‘Meet Julia’ episode is something that I wish my son’s friends had been able to see when they were small,” Gordon told the AP. “I remember him having meltdowns and his classmates not understanding how to react.”
Julia is not an entirely new character. She first appeared in a 2015 Sesame Street online storybook, titled “We’re Amazing, 1, 2, 3!” In it, Julia is introduced as one of Elmo’s longtime friends, and the two of them share many favorite activities, even if they approach them differently. Where Elmo enjoys building block towers and then knocking them down, Julia likes to line up her blocks in a row to build a wall. They both play with toy cars, but Julia especially likes to spin the wheels on hers over and over again.
Both of them go to a playground, where Elmo introduces Julia to his other friend Abby. When Julia doesn’t answer or make eye contact, Elmo steps in to explain why.
“Elmo’s daddy told Elmo that Julia has autism,” he tells Abby in the storybook. “So she does things a little differently. Sometimes Elmo talks to Julia using fewer words and says the same thing a few times.”
The online storybook’s author, Leslie Kimmelman, said on the website that her son was diagnosed with autism more than 20 years ago, changing her life “instantly and profoundly.”
“I knew nothing about autism, and it seemed that those around me — even the professionals — didn’t know much either,” Kimmelman wrote. “Today, happily, that has changed. There’s greater awareness, and there has been much progress understanding autism. But it’s still a puzzle, and every child is affected differently.”
The response to the online storybook character was so positive that show producers began exploring how to bring Julia from the online storybook to the three-dimensional, Muppet world.
“Sesame Street” aired its first episode in 1969, and for decades, it has remained one of the most powerful and effective ways to reach children. In 2015, a landmark study showed that children could benefit as much from watching “Sesame Street” as from going to preschool. The show now runs on HBO as well as PBS.
“Sesame Street” also has a history of tackling difficult life topics for young children where other shows might gloss over them. After the death of Will Lee — the actor who played Mr. Hooper, the beloved proprietor of “Sesame Street’s” neighborhood store — producers initially considered simply saying he had moved away. Ultimately, they chose to address the character’s death on the show to teach children about death and grieving. “Farewell, Mr. Hooper” remains one of the most memorable and heralded episodes in the show’s history, winning a Peabody and Daytime Emmy awards.
As for Julia, it’s too early to tell whether she will become a major character, Ferraro told Stahl on “60 Minutes” Sunday. The show writer said she hoped so — but also that Julia’s autism would not be such a big deal one day.
“I would love her to be not Julia, the kid on ‘Sesame Street’ who has autism,” Ferraro told Stahl. “I would like her to be just Julia.”