Meet Julia. She’s Sesame Street’s newest muppet, a little 4-year-old girl with orange shoulder-length hair, green eyes, and a wide open smile. Julia has autism, a developmental condition that causes difficulties in behaviour, learning, interaction, and communication.
Julia first made her online debut on Sesame Street as part of their See Amazing in All Children initiative, a program aimed at helping children and parents understand children with autism.
Sesame Workshop, the minds behind Sesame Street, spent years developing Julia’s character in close consultation with autism experts and organisations, as well as families with autistic children. Although autistic behavior often manifests itself very differently from person to person, Sesame Workshop used the most common and identifiable traits for Julia – such as her difficulty to make eye contact and her tendency to get absorbed in the things she likes. Julia’s puppeteer also draws upon her own experiences with her autistic son to animate Julia as realistically as possible. You can see some of Julia’s giveaway behaviours in the clips below:
Because an autistic child’s brain functions differently, this affects the way she perceives and interacts with her world – like Julia does. As a result, autistic children often behave and express themselves differently from children without autism. Without proper awareness or empathy, these differences can cause misunderstandings and conflict.
For example, in one skit, Big Bird gets confused when Julia doesn’t look up from her colouring book to greet him. He assumes she dislikes him because he doesn’t understand that it’s part of Julia’s autistic behaviour until it’s explained to him.
While it’s true there can be significant differences between people with autism and their peers, all children want the same things: to feel safe, happy, and loved,” Sesame Street explains. But in real life, autistic children are five times more likely to be bullied than their non-autistic peers. And that’s really sad – people with autism find it hard enough to fit in as it is, and bullying is something no child – autistic or not – should have to go through.
Approximately 9,000 children with autism are born every year in Malaysia, according to the National Autism Society of Malaysia. Autism awareness in Malaysia has increased in recent years, which has been great for ensuring our autistic children get the treatment they need. But empathy and understanding how to treat an autistic person are also crucial to help them feel accepted. Which is what Sesame Street hopes to do with Julia.
Starting in April, Julia will be brought to life on the TV show. Watch Sesame Street’s writers talk about the process behind creating Julia below:
For the past decades, Sesame Street has been expanding its cast and topics to teach children diversity and inclusivity alongside their arithmetic and vocabulary. Some of the thorny issues they’ve tackled include: growing up with a parent in jail, meeting a HIV-positive character, and coping with death.
For more information and resources on autism in Malaysia, visit The National Autism Society of Malaysia and The Early Autism Project.