Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Why Sesame Street's muppet with autism is a win for all children with special needs

I had two reactions to yesterday's news that Sesame Street will soon introduce a muppet with autism named Julia: That is awesome. Followed by: Hey, what about my child with cerebral palsy? Who's representing him? Perhaps parents of children with Down syndrome had the same response. But the more I thought about it and the more I read, the more I realized that a character on Sesame Street with autism is a win for all children with special needs.

Julia, four years old, began her career in an online animated storybook (part of the Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children initiative) before moving on to muppethood. Sesame Workshop consulted with organizations in the autism community to bring her to life. "Meet Julia" will air on Monday, April 10, on PBS KIDS and HBO. The episode features some common scenarios for children with autism: Big Bird says hello to Julia, but she doesn't respond; Julia gets overwhelmed when she hears sirens and covers her ears.

The episode offers simple yet realistic ideas for inclusion, like in this scene where Julia and fellow muppet Abby Cadabby play. After Julia gets so excited that she jumps up and down, the two of them do it together.

When a formative program like Sesame Street exposes young children behavior that's common in children with autism, it can help normalize it. Children with disability remain a rarity in TV programs. "It's important for kids without autism to see what autism can look like," Julia's puppeteer, Stacey Gordon, told Sixty Minutes. She speaks from experience—her son has autism. "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" she continued, "they might not have been frightened. They might not have been worried when he cried. They would have known that he plays in a different way and that's OK."

Puppeteer/autism mom Stacey Gordon at right
Yet as just another cute muppet who hangs with the Sesame Street gang, Julia will also enable children to see how their peers with special needs are similar to them. The more little kids get what's more alike than different, the less they'll view kids with special needs as "others." Sesame Street describes Julia as "smiley, curious and loves to play." You know—your typical muppet next door, who just happens to have autism. She likes to sing, too, and she's bright, showing Abby another way besides blowing to produce bubbles.

Julia will appear in two episodes in the current season and more in the next, according to NPR. I have high hopes that her presence will help young viewers better understand and embrace autism, along with other special needs. Indeed, some of Julia's challenges aren't limited to children with autism. Max had sensory issues for years, and like Julia was afraid of loud noises. Also like children with autism, children with cerebral palsy and Down syndrome can have unique ways of speaking and communicating. These are things parents can point out to their kids, using the skits Julia's in as springboards for larger discussions about children with special needs. Even if they don't, though, Julia will likely leave a lasting impression.

I think of the Street characters I grew up with—curious Big Bird, grouchy Oscar, kooky Ernie and Bert—and how they felt like friends. Perhaps Julia will be one of those characters to the next generation. Sesame Street writer Christine Ferraro said it best: "I would love her to be not Julia, the kid on Sesame Street who has autism. I would like her to be just Julia."

You can watch all six videos featuring Julia here.

Also see:

How parents can talk to kids about ones with special needs

Image of Stacey Gordon: screen grab, WIRE-AP video


  1. I have seen an autistic character, "Carl," featured in at least two episodes of the show "Arthur," based on the Marc Brown books, and I thought it was a very helpful way to show the contributions an autistic friend can make, especially if the other children understand more about him. These episodes were great.

  2. What an interesting post. It's about time kids with special needs be recognized on programs like that. You're absolutely right in saying it helps to normalize them. I sure wish they would have had something like that on Sesame Street when I was younger. I'm so glade you brought up Cerebral Palsy Ellen, because I started a blog as an online community for people with CP (and their loved ones) to collaborate and share their stories, and experiences www.mycpandme.com/

    1. There have been people on Sesame Street with disabilities. I have seen people in wheelchairs and people with Downs Syndrome. Actual people though, not puppets and I can't recall if there were storylines featuring them.

  3. I love the episode of Daniel Tiger: "Daniel's New Friend.

    Daniel's new friend, Chrissie, wears AFO's and uses forearm crutches. My little guy was thrilled to see a character in a favorite show wearing AFOs just like him, and we both loved the message that everyone is different - but in so many ways we are the same.

    1. I was curious - so I just looked it up. Chrissie has been in 8 episodes of Daniel Tiger, and is based on Chrissy Thompson, who occasionally appeared on Mr. Roger's neighborhood.

  4. I haven't seen Sesame Street in years, but this is totally a change to the programming that I could get on board with!


  5. My daughter's disorder is one of two in the world. It doesn't have a name. And I couldn't give a care what disability the new Muppet has. At least all people with a disability, and their family, will be able to relate. I don't see the new Muppet as just about autism. I see them about disabilities of all kinds. And hooray for that.


Thanks for sharing!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...