Sesame Street wants kids who have autism to feel not just included but celebrated for who they are. So the program created Julia in 2015, its first character with autism as part of a nationwide initiative to reduce any stigma associated with the condition.
Julia is part of the "Sesame Street and Autism: See the Amazing in All Children" campaign that includes a digital storybook, story cards and real stories about kids with autism.
"Our goal is to bring forth what all children share in common, not their differences," said Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Street's senior vice president of U.S. social impact. "Children with autism share in the joy of playing and loving and being friends and being part of a group."
To accomplish this, the storybook, called "We're Amazing, 1, 2, 3!" starts off by talking about all of the different things that Elmo, and his new pal Julia have in common — things like building towers with blocks, playing with cars, and playing games on the tablet. Julia's autism is introduced as Elmo explains to his other friend Abby Cadabby why Julia sometimes does thing differently than they do.
"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 thing a few times."
The book goes on to explain why Julia sometimes flaps her arms in the air when she is excited or shies away from loud noises. The idea is to help kids with autism feel loved and accepted and to help kids who don't have autism understand their peers. The latest statistics show that one in 68 kids are diagnosed with autism, so it's likely that most kids have come across at least one child with autism at school, or church or maybe even at home.
The mission of "We're Amazing" and the other resources on the Sesame Street and Autism website is to celebrate all kids and what makes them unique. "Everyone is touched by autism, and by creating Julia, Sesame is bringing children together," said Bentacourt.
Transition to TV
Julia's presence in "We're Amazing, 1, 2, 3!" and online media was so successful and welcomed that bringing her to the TV was the next logical step.
"We realized if we brought her to life appearing in 'Sesame Street' on air as well, she would have even more impact [and] be able to reach even more children," Sherrie Westin, an executive vice president at Sesame Workshop, told NPR.
"She's one of the kids, she's one of the gang," Rose Jochum said to NPR. Jochum is director of internal initiatives at the Autism Society of America, one of 14 organizations Sesame Workshop consulted regarding representing Julia. "It's really meaningful to see her there, singing with Elmo, Big Bird and all the other characters. It's great."
Speaking to the Associated Press, "Sesame Street" writer Christine Ferraro acknowledged that they couldn't "show everything" or "be symbolic of every kid out that's there." So when Big Bird inquires about autism, Elmo, Abby Cadabby and Alan have to explain autism to him, and they explain it in regards to Julia specifically. Abby says that Julia "does things just a little bit differently, in that Julia sort of way."
Julia will make her debut in the April 10 episode, which can be watched on HBO and later on YouTube and PBS Kids. Julia will appear in one more episode this season, and more appearances are planned for the upcoming season. If you can't wait, you can watch a few clips of Julia online already, including the one above with Elmo and this one below with Abby, where they both sing the "Sesame Street" theme song.
This story has been updated with new information since it was originally published in October 2015.