It’s a rare and special occasion when Sesame Street introduces a new Muppet character to its stable, winning formula. But Julia is that remarkable a character.
An Online Presence
Julia is officially four years old, and she was introduced as a character in We’re Amazing, 1, 2, 3! as part of a Sesame Workshop digital initiative in 2015. Julia is the first Muppet and Sesame Street figure on the autism spectrum. Her debut was part of an online multimedia campaign called “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children,” which included an app, videos, a storybook, and online resources for families of children with autism.
Welcome to the Street
Julia in digital form proved so popular — and fulfilled a real need for cultural representation of children with autism — that Sesame Street producers added her to the TV show in 2017. She’s usually depicted playing with her best friends, fellow preschool-age characters Abby Cadabby and Elmo.
The Woman Behind the Muppet
Puppeteer Stacey Gordon, founder of the puppet website Puppet Pie, operates and voices Julia. Gordon has a special connection to the character — her son is on the autism spectrum, and she uses her experiences to inform her portrayal.
Different But the Same
About 1 in 59 children in America fall on the autism spectrum, and Sesame Street producers wanted a character both to represent those kids and also to help kids not on the spectrum to better understand classmates and friends that are. The approach may be best summed up by Elmo: “Julia has autism. And that makes Julia different. But it’s really cool that everybody’s a little bit different but same, too. And Elmo and Julia have a lot in common, and we have a lot of fun together.”
Sesame Street writers and producers consulted child psychologists, autism organizations, and educators to make sure they presented Julia sensitively and accurately. Because autism is on a spectrum, they carefully decided which of its many traits would manifest in Julia. They decided that she would have difficulty looking others in the eye, be sensitive to loud noises and bright lights, and would wave her arms around, or “flap,” when she became overwhelmed, upset, or excited. They also decided to give her a computer device to help her express herself.
Arms and the Muppet
Julia’s character traits inform how the Julia puppet works. Master Muppet builder Rollie Krewson built two sets of arms for the puppet. One set is for static, everyday moments. And because Julia flaps her arms when she gets stressed, Krewson made a set that could move around more realistically.
At Home with Julia
In conjunction with Autism Awareness Month in 2019, Sesame Workshop fleshed out Julia’s home life. She has a mom who works as an art teacher, a saxophone-playing dad, a protective and patient older brother named Sam, and a cute brown companion dog named Rose. (This marks the first time in years that a Sesame Street character has had a pet, joining Bert’s pigeon, Bernice; Elmo’s goldfish, Dorothy; and gigantic furry canine Barkley.)
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