Sesame Street Has a New Character With Autism.05-Dec-2015
Sesame Street Has a New Character With Autism. Will Kids Without It Ever See Her?
Sesame Street got so many things right with its new character, Julia, an orange-haired girl with autism whose eyes never quite meet the reader’s. Introduced in a digital storybook available online and in print, Julia is described as an old friend of Elmo’s. When Elmo’s muppet friend Abby meets Julia, she is confused, and she has questions. Julia doesn’t talk to her right away, does that mean Julia doesn’t like her? Why does Julia get so upset over loud noises?
And then there are the things Abby doesn’t comment on — Julia knows every word to a lot of songs. She spins the wheels of toy cars over and over and over again, and flaps her arms when she is excited. She is a recognizably different (and recognizably autistic) without being overwhelmingly so, and while not every child with autism is exactly like Julia and she doesn’t (couldn’t) display every possible characteristic of every child with autism, children with autism can find themselves in her, and children learning about the condition can start here.
Sesame Workshop based Julia on years of research, says Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s vice president of outreach and educational practices. “We wanted to demonstrate some of the characteristics of autism in a positive way,” she says. The choice of gender was also deliberate. “We wanted to break down some of the myths and misconceptions around autism. It’s not only impacting boys, but girls as well.”
That’s a choice that delighted Chrissy George, the mother of Cassie, 7, who loves Sesame Street, and who has autism. “Girls don’t get represented in autism very often,” she says. “When I tell people about Cassie, they say, ‘Oh, wow, a daughter? I thought autism was only boys.'” She is thrilled to see Julia, and to share her with her daughter. “Julia is so well-rounded — she just has these little characteristics that are just like, having green eyes. She’s not so different that she’s weird. She’s just different.”
So what did Sesame Street get wrong? It’s not what they did. It’s what they haven’t done, at least not yet. Ms. George has high hopes for Julia: “I want to see Julia on ‘Sesame Street,’ how she reacts to the different characters and situations, how they react to her and interact with her,” she said with excitement.
Dr. Betancourt didn’t rule that out, but viewers shouldn’t expect to see a Julia muppet at Mr. Hooper’s store anytime soon. “We’re looking to do this in a very thoughtful fashion,” she says. “We want to hear back from the autism community about what other resources would be helpful, whether we should animate her further or offer video content.” Characters with disabilities have been regulars on the program in the past, like Linda, the deaf librarian played by the deaf actress Linda Bove. Sometimes Linda’s deafness was highlighted; at other times, she was simply another neighbor on the street. Parents hoping for that kind of integration for Julia will have to wait and see.
For now, Julia’s story is part of Sesame Street’s larger Autism Initiative. Families and children who make their way there online or via the app will find a series of wonderful videos highlighting children with autism and their siblings, parents and friends, along with Julia’s book (“We’re Amazing, 1, 2, 3!”), “Benny’s Story,” a short video animation created in part by young artists on the autism spectrum, daily activity cards featuring Sesame Street characters and other resources. It’s a wonderful, comprehensive site (and the videos, in particular, are both engaging and educational), but unless Julia begins to appear in Sesame Street’s mainstream materials, the initiative’s impact will be limited to those who seek it out.
“It’s wonderful to have all these resources for parents, grandparents and families,” Ms. George says, “but we’re not there 24/7. I want to know that Cassie will go to school, and someone will sit with her on the swing, and sing with her, and not think she’s weird.” As more neurotypical children meet Julia, Ms. George hopes the character will help them look past what is different in her daughter, and see the things that are the same, as well as the good things that make her daughter unique.
Julia’s story, she says, “shouldn’t just be one and done.”
“Autism can be seen as almost a fad right now,” she says, “like it’s trendy to have an autistic character. But it’s not a trend for us. It’s forever. I want Julia to stick around.”
“My recovery,” Pamela says, “was like a phoenix rising out of an abyss.”