Sesame Street, often lauded for the way it introduces children to social issues, has taken one of the biggest educational steps in its history.
The much-respected program has gone to extreme lengths to ensure its new character, Julia, does justice to the subject of autism.
AFP, reporting on a 60 Minutes story on Sesame Street, says diagnoses of autism have risen steadily in recent years to the rate of one in every 68 US children.
Tackling the topic for children on Sesame Street, however, was far from straightforward.
VIDEO: Julia makes an instant impact on the Sesame Street gang.
Street smarts: Elmo and Julia in action.
“The big discussion right at the start was, ‘How do we do this? How do we talk about autism?’” Sesame Street
writer Christine Ferraro told 60 Minutes
“It’s tricky because autism is not one thing, because it is different for every single person who has autism.”
When Big Bird is introduced to Julia, she ignores him. And when a group of children decide to play tag together, Julia becomes so excited she starts jumping up and down.
“That’s a thing that can be typical of some kids with autism,” Ferarro said. But the situation turns into a new game in which all the children jump around with Julia.
“So it was a very easy way to show that with a very slight accommodation, they can meet her where she is,” Ferraro said.
Julia’s puppeteer has a son on the spectrum
As for other characters, the show conducted extensive research, including consultations with educators and child psychologists, and in this case autism organisations, to understand how best to explore autism for non-autistic children.
Julia’s puppeteer, Stacey Gordon, also happens to be the mother of an autistic son.
“It’s important for kids without autism to see what autism can look like,” she told 60 Minutes. “Had my son’s friends been exposed to his behaviours through something that they had seen on TV before they experienced them in the classroom, they might not have been frightened.”
Although it’s not clear whether Julia will become a major character, “I would love her to be,” Ferarro said.
“I would love her to be not Julia, the kid on Sesame Street who has autism,” she added. “I would like her to be just Julia.”