Just yesterday the world was introduced to Julia, the newest member of the Sesame Street group and a special first for the show - Julia is the first neighbor with autism. She's a Muppet with bright hair, green eyes, and a sunny disposition. She's also autistic, which might be a problem for the show.
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Now representing children with autism on a show that a majority of children learn from, how can that be a problem?
The fact that Julia is a girl is the problem here. According to the Los Angeles Times, 1 in 42 people with autism are boys, while only 1 in 89 are girls - meaning boys are five times more likely to be diagnosed with autism.
So shouldn't Julia have be a Josh?
That was on the mind of Sherrie Westin, the executive vice president of global impact and philanthropy at Sesame Street. The character took over three years to create, and researchers actually recommended that they make her a girl!
“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 spectrum, too. We’re trying to eliminate misconceptions, and a lot of people think that only boys have autism.”
While Julia won't be the show for a while, she will appear in books and specials. Many people have questioned why the show hasn't had a character with autism before, but it had more to do with the fact that they couldn't create a new character in such a short amount of time. “It really grew from being something to help families with children on the spectrum,” Westin said, but shifted in focus when she learned about “the lack of understanding of autism among neurotypical children.”
They likely knew that they were wading into unsettled waters with Julia, as the autism spectrum doesn't have a look, feel, or sound. Children diagnosed with autism can have many different symptoms and personalities. For instance, Julia is sometimes quiet, but she can talk. However, she cannot make eye contact for long periods of time. She excites easily and flaps her arms when that happens. She is also very smart and naturally curious.
“Sesame can be a great convener of different interests,” Westin said. “We were able to bring people at opposite ends of the spectrum, pun intended, from Autism Speaks, to the Autism Self-Advocacy Network. Those groups see certain things differently, but what they had in common is they wanted to give families and children tools.”
In the end, Westin hopes to end some of the bullying that autistic children face on a daily basis.