The first thing children watching Sesame Street might notice about Julia, the new Muppet on the block, is that she doesn’t want to make eye contact with Big Bird.
Sesame devotees — which is to say, toddlers, kids, and their parents — might recognize Julia from her previous appearances on digital Sesame platforms, including ebooks. They’ll already know that Julia is a four-year-old with autism.
But for viewers who will meet Julia for the first time when she makes her broadcast debut on April 10, Julia might seem unusual. Then again, maybe not: One in 68 children is diagnosed with autism. Maybe Julia will not seem unusual at all. Maybe she’ll seem totally, completely familiar.
“When something is this prevalent, it’s something we have to step up to,” Sherrie Westin, Executive Vice President for Global Impact and Philanthropy at Sesame Workshop, said by phone. Julia is part of Sesame’s autism awareness initiative, “See Amazing in All Children,” and she’s the first new Muppet to appear on Sesame Street since Abby Cadabby in 2006.
The bar for bringing a new Muppet to the Street is high. Why Julia?
“I think it grew out of the potential Julia had to make a difference,” said Westin. “Sesame Street stands for inclusion and acceptance. That’s a huge part of our DNA… So there wasn’t resistance to bringing her to life on the broadcast. I think there was such enthusiasm.”
Julia isn’t in the main cast — that elite, Elmo and Big Bird status — but she’ll appear in two episodes this season.
Everything about Julia was the result of major deliberation, even her gender. “The fact that she’s a girl, there was a lot of discussion around that.” Westin says people have asked about that choice, considering the fact that “there are more boys on the spectrum than girls.”
“But in fact that’s exactly why we chose to make Julia a girl,” Westin said. “If you step back and realize, part of the goal is to break down misconceptions. Many people think that a girl can’t have autism. This helps you understand that a boy or a girl can be on the autism spectrum. So it helps to create greater understanding and awareness of what autism look like.” (And in case you’re wondering why she has a name like Julia as opposed to, say, a name like Elmo, a useful distinction: Julia, in the mold of Bert and Ernie, is a humanoid Muppet; Elmo, Grover, and Cookie Monster are, well, monsters.)
Similar deliberation went into choosing what telling characteristics of autism spectrum disorder Julia should display. What behavioral tics and traits would illuminate autism in a way that was helpful and human, that doesn’t contribute to misconceptions and stereotypes but also doesn’t skirt around the very real ways in which autism presents itself in children?
“There’s a saying: If you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve seen one child with autism,” said Westin. “We knew that each and every child on the spectrum is unique — frankly, all children are unique. So [we knew] Julia would have some characteristics that children with autism may have so that she could be replicative of children with autism, knowing full well that there would be no specific profile that would be representative of all children with autism. That we understood… We just worked hard to see that we could come up with certain characteristics that would allow children with autism to identify with her, but all children have unique strengths and weaknesses.”
“What we’re able to do is say, even though Julia doesn’t show it in the same way, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to be your friend; it doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to play with you. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to be included, like all children.”
Julia “would be considered in that moderate range” of the autism spectrum, Westin said. She cited the eye-contact-aversion moment, when Big Bird wants to meet Julia. “She doesn’t look up. And that gives us an opportunity for Abby to explain to Big Bird, ‘This is my friend Julia. She has autism.’” In another scene, a loud sound goes off and Julia covers her ears, which gives another character on the show the chance to explain that loud noises bother Julia.
“It gave us an opportunity to explain a certain reaction or behavior that may be somewhat typical, but [allowing] for this understanding that there is no exact profile,” Westin said. Through these interactions that Julia has with the main cast, “What we’re able to do is say, even though Julia doesn’t show it in the same way, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to be your friend; it doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to play with you. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to be included, like all children.”
Autism occupies a tricky space in the health and science space. Within the autism community, opinions vary widely, “from one extreme where it’s [about] finding a cure to the other where it’s all about self-advocacy,” Westin said. As far as public perception goes, autism — what it is, how it manifests, what it means for a person to have it — is still a relatively new entry into the mainstream consciousness. Misinformation about what could cause or cure autism abounds.
“The reason we’re able to navigate this is, we’re not talking about cause, cure, any of those issues,” said Westin. “What we’re focused on is building awareness, increased understanding, and empathy. And that’s something that every one of those organizations could agree with. That’s our point and that’s the impetus of the initiative, and that allows us to do a great service with the entire autism community, because no one takes issue with the fact that that’s a real need.”
“In talking to families with autism, it was such a recurring theme of, how isolated they felt,” Westin said. “And how important it was for their children to be included.”
Julia didn’t stem from any personal experience for Westin. “We didn’t start out because of anyone’s particular self-interest. I’ve championed this for years, but I don’t have a child with autism.”
“It was really enlightening how often, every step along the way, people who helped work on this had a connection to autism,” she said, a thread she wasn’t expecting to see.
Westin oversees the social impact branch of Sesame Workshop, running the division both in the U.S. and around the world, with a focus on “particularly vulnerable children and families.” She’s worked on initiatives like destigmatizing AIDS through Kami, the first HIV-positive Muppet on Takalani Sesame in South Africa, and the creation of Zari, a female Afghan Muppet who hopes to become a doctor when she grows up. Even compared to those experiences, Westin said, “The process of creating Julia was one of the most rewarding, because you just couldn’t help but realize every step of the way what a unique role she could play and what a difference she could make.”
How does it feel to be introducing this new character just days after the release of President Trump’s proposed federal budget, which would cut the Center for Public Broadcasting entirely? “This is not the first time that there have been threats to eliminate public funding for public broadcasting,” Westin said. “But as always, we try to make it clear that PBS is a lifelong partner and we would not be able to reach all these children without PBS. We rely tremendously on a public broadcasting system. You’ve covered our going to HBO and you’re right, that gives us a huge opportunity to pay for production. But it’s also because HBO allows us to stay on PBS, virtually gives us to PBS, that makes it workable.”
What role Julia will play in future Sesame seasons is yet to be determined. So far, the two episodes that introduce her are “very much intended to be about modeling what autism can look like and what the commonalities are, not focusing on the differences,” Westin said. No word yet on whether Julia will return, appearing in segments about issues that don’t revolve around autism — your standard Sesame subjects like reading, counting, and sharing. “This is sort of a first step,” Westin said. “We’ll see down the line as we address the next season.”