Preschool character “does things a little differently when playing with friends”
Since it began in 1969, Sesame Street has always led the way in depicting diverse characters, including several with disabilities. In 1982, Sesame Street introduced a blind monster named Aristotle who could read Braille. In 1993, a human cast member named Tarah used a wheelchair, and, in 2004, animated segments featured a character named Traction Jackson, also in a wheelchair.
Rosita, one of the newer muppets, has a father, Ricardo, who uses a wheelchair, although he has only been featured in the special Talk, Listen, Connect series and not the main Sesame Street television series. Talk, Listen, Connect is a targeted series, created and aired specifically for children who have family members in the military. In an episode entitled “Changes,” Ricardo returns home from combat deployment in a wheelchair.
Some other examples include Jason Kingsley, who has Down syndrome—he appeared in over 50 Sesame Street episodes. And, Linda Bove, who is deaf, appeared on the show from 1971 to 2003.
So Julia joins a long line of Sesame Street characters with disabilities, but she’s the first to have a disability that can’t be easily recognized. She’s described by the Sesame Workshop as “a preschool girl with autism who does things a little differently when playing with her friends.” A wide-eyed little girl with a big smile, Julia was first introduced in the fall of 2015 in her own digital storybook, We’re Amazing, 1,2,3, by Leslie Kimmelman. She’s a regular on the Sesame Street television show, which airs its first-run shows exclusively on the HBO network. Public television stations across the country still run the show, but episodes air nine months behind the HBO schedule on local public television stations.
To develop Julia’s character, Sesame Street worked with organizations such as Autism Speaks and Autism Self Advocacy to help reduce the stigma associated with autism spectrum disorder. As part of the campaign “See Amazing in All Children,” muppet Abby Cadabby explains in one YouTube video, “Lots of kids have autism and that just means their brains work a little differently.”
Julia is not the first fictional media character with autism. But Michael Robb, Director of Research for Common Sense Media, an organization that rates and reviews media aimed at children, says Sesame Street’s move is “pretty groundbreaking.” He explains, “It can be difficult to start a conversation about children with disabilities. It’s even harder when that difference isn’t visible.”
Robb says the show helps children be more understanding of how Julia is different. “It’s very real, in terms of talking in simple language. It spells out these things in concrete ways that kids can understand. It shows the ways in which she’s just like other kids. It shows how making simple accommodations can help Julia.”
Look for Julia on Sesame Street on both HBO and your local public television station.