'Sesame Street' Introduces Muppet on the Autism Spectrum

Over its 47 seasons in production, Sesame Street has tackled a wide range of topics to help educate children. When the show was first conceived, its creators didn’t know if it was possible for television to be used as a tool to educate young children. Clearly, they were onto something.

And now Sesame Street is taking yet another step to open children’s eyes. On Monday, April 10, the Sesame Workshop will introduce another character to its already well-known crew. Julia, a muppet on the autism spectrum, will make her debut.

Over the past 25 years, the number of autism diagnoses has soared. (Experts think that is the result of improved diagnostic practices rather than an increase in the number of people with the disorder.) As a result, it is increasingly likely that kids will encounter other children with autism. Sesame Street thought it was important to address this, to normalize autism, and to help children understand more about it.

CBS News reports:

[Christine Ferraro, a writer for Sesame Street, said] It’s tricky because autism is not one thing, because it is different for every single person who has autism. There is an expression that goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

“Sesame Street” has always based its characters and content on extensive research.  They regularly bring in educators and child psychologists. In the case of Julia, they also worked with autism organizations to decide which characteristics she should have and how best to normalize autism for all children.

The show, which is notoriously a happy place even behind the scenes, shoots on a sound stage in Queens, N.Y. In fact, one of the original cameramen (who shot the very first episode) still works there today. And while the muppets (and the puppeteers who control them) have a lot of fun, the primary goal of the show is to educate. It is something the Sesame Workshop takes seriously.

According to USA Today:

“In the U.S., one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder,” [Jeanette] Betancourt, [Sesame Workhop’s vice president of U.S. Social Impact] said in the interview. “We wanted to promote a better understanding and reduce the stigma often found around these children. We’re modeling the way both children and adults can look at autism from a strength-based perspective: finding things that all children share.”

Scott Badesch, president and CEO of the Autism Society of America, was involved in the committee of people in the autism community who helped Sesame Workshop think through the concept. His son, who has autism, watched the show as a child. He graduated from college last year, and is working, Badesch said.

Badesch said that it was obvious the committee “really wanted to get it right – and they got it right,” with Julia’s character.

“When you can have a character that shows what autism is, it will help everyone who watches Sesame Street have a really good appreciation of what a is, in a positive way,” Badesch said.

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