When Julia was first introduced as a character in "Sesame Street" videos and online storybooks in 2015, many parents were excited to see the inclusion of kids with autism. Soon, she will be brought to life and reach even more children on air. On April 10, the 4-year-old Muppet with red hair and a knack for painting will make her first TV appearance on "Sesame Street."
It's rare for the show to introduce a new, permanent Muppet. We can see why producers decided to welcome Julia as the new kid on the block for the first time in a decade. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children in the U.S. are identified with autism spectrum disorder. During a time when the rate of autism diagnoses has multiplied, it is increasingly important to normalize autism.
But how do you do that with a diagnosis that includes a wide range of characteristics? As the saying goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” For Julia's character, "Sesame Street" did extensive research and worked with autism organizations, educators and child psychologists to decide which characteristics the new Muppet should have.
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, they might not have been frightened.
There's a variety of qualities that make Julia who she is and a little different from others in the gang. Sometimes Julia doesn't respond when another Muppet tries to talk to her or she jumps up and down when she's excited. She can feel bothered by intense sounds and often sees what others don't. She also has great drawing skills and loves picking flowers.
Having Julia on the show and seeing other characters treat her with compassion means a lot to the puppeteer behind Julia, Stacey Gordon. As a mom of a son with autism, Gordon shares a special connection with Julia.
"It means that our kids are important enough to be seen in society," she told the CBS show "60 Minutes." "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, 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 that’s OK."
"Sesame Street" writer Christine Ferraro hopes Julia, who will appear in two episodes in the current season, will be a recurring character and says, "I would love her to be not Julia, the kid on 'Sesame Street' who has autism. I would like her to be just Julia."
But the Muppet has been mired in controversy since her introduction. Anti-vaxxers say she's a result of a conspiracy to normalize autism, though the myth that vaccines cause autism have been much-discredited.
“The rollout of autistic Julia is Sesame Street’s attempt to ‘normalize’ vaccine injuries and depict those victimized by vaccines as happy, ‘amazing’ children rather than admitting the truth that vaccines cause autism in some children and we should therefore make vaccines safer and less frequent to save those children from a lifetime of neurological damage," writes Mike Adams on Natural News.
But many parents don't see Julia's character as a problem. Better yet, normalizing her autism teaches kids to be respectful and have an open mind from an early age.
On "Sesame Street," they "aren't afraid to talk about the things that make us different. They show us what inclusion really looks like—learning about others. And how beautiful that this training takes place in a show geared toward minds at such an impressionable age," writes mom.me contributor Sarah Kovac.
You can watch Julia's TV debut on PBS Kids, HBO and YouTube. She will first appear in English and Spanish in the U.S., U.K., Australia and Mexico, and will later appear in more languages and countries.