Newest Muppet gives autism a friendly face — and orange hair
Meet Julia, Sesame Street’s newest Muppet. She has bright orange hair, big green eyes, and sometimes takes a long time to answer questions. She has autism.
And if you hadn't guessed, she’s also a girl.
Which might seem odd: Autism Spectrum Disorder affects 1 in 68 American children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a government health agency. But 1 in 42 boys are diagnosed with autism, compared with 1 in 189 girls — meaning about five times as many boys as girls are diagnosed with autism.
So shouldn't Sesame Street's new character be a boy?
That question isn’t lost on Sherrie Westin, an executive vice president at Sesame. Julia took three years to create, and after consulting extensively with researchers, Westin was at first surprised that they recommended a girl. But the more she thought about it, the more it made sense to her.
Parents Wrote To Sesame Street
“We made sure she was a girl namely because autism is seen so much more often in boys,” she said. “We wanted to make it clear that girls can be on the autism spectrum, too."
Recently, Sesame Street Workshop unveiled its newest effort, a website called “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.” The website introduces Julia and includes several videos about autism. As of now, Julia will not be appearing on the Sesame Street TV broadcast, a spokesman said.
Westin said the project is something they felt Sesame should be tackling. She cited the sheer number of autism cases as well as the many letters from parents of children with autism. They spoke of their kids' connection to Sesame and the Muppets.
Three years ago, Sesame prepared to take on the project and the process began. “It really grew from being something to help families with children on the spectrum.” Westin said. Later, it shifted in focus when she learned of the lack of understanding about autism among children without the disorder, she said.
Views Of Autism Vary Greatly
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of difficulty. Children with ASD can be anywhere along that broad spectrum.
Children with autism vary in their traits significantly: Some can talk, while others can’t. Many of them are sensitive to noise. Some have trouble keeping eye contact, and many of them experience the world differently, so they’ll touch different objects to explore the sensation of texture. Perhaps because of this range, autism is also extremely controversial. While some organizations, such as Autism Speaks, consider autism a syndrome that calls for research to cure it or help reduce its effects, others, such as the Autism Self-Advocacy Network, simply view autism as an alternative way of expressing oneself. It believes autistic people should just be accepted as they are, because their brains are different.
One character cannot show the entire range of autistic traits, of course. By introducing Julia, Sesame Street risked facing backlash.
Julia May Help Stop Bullying
Sesame can help bring together people of different interests, Westin said. She mentioned in particular Autism Speaks and the Autism Self-Advocacy Network. The two groups that "see certain things differently, but what they had in common is they wanted to give families and children tools.” Both groups have said they support Sesame's project.
Besides, Westin said, Sesame isn’t trying to answer some of the more controversial questions about autism, such as its cause. “We don’t pretend that every child who is on the spectrum is the same,” she said. Sesame is trying to tackle a fundamental problem: Autistic children are five times as likely to be bullied than their peers.
Ultimately, after working with these groups and experts from such institutions as the Yale Child Study Center, they decided on these characteristics for Julia: She can talk. She cannot make extensive eye contact. And she flaps her arms when she gets excited. “We chose things we thought would be most helpful and most typical,” Westin said. On top of these markers of autism, Julia is very curious and smart.
Storybook Covers The Basics
The storybook shows her playing with Elmo and mentions things like how she plays. For instance, with a toy bus, "she especially likes spinning the wheels around and around."
Sesame also shows Julia’s autism in how she communicates with other Muppets. In one scene, as she swings with Elmo, Elmo introduces her to his friend Abby. But Julia keeps swinging and doesn’t look in Abby’s direction, prompting Abby to say, “Your friend doesn’t like me.”
But that’s not true, Elmo responds. “It’s just hard for her to talk when she’s swinging,” he explains. Once Julia finishes swinging, Abby tries again, and asks if they can play together, but Julia just looks down.
Again, Elmo has the answer. “Elmo’s daddy told Elmo that Julia has autism,” he says. “So she does things a little differently. Sometimes Elmo talks to Julia using fewer words and says the same things a few times.”
Sesame plans to keep an eye on the project to see how effective it is.