For 46 years, Sesame Street has been a fixture for children around the world.
Its mission: helping children “grow stronger, smarter and kinder”. And to that end, the people behind the US television series have introduced a new character this week.
Julia, the show’s latest muppet, has bright orange hair, green eyes and likes to ride the swings with Elmo, the short, furry, red character. But Julia doesn’t answer questions right away and gets visibly upset over loud noises. She’s autistic, a disorder that affects one in 68 children in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president of US social impact, says it took three years of research and consultations with experts from institutions such as the Yale Child Study Center to bring Julia to life.
“We had a coalition of diverse autism organisations,” Betancourt told Al Jazeera. “We discussed our prototype materials … with families with children with autism [and] with young [autistic] children.”
Julia’s introduction is part of “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children”, an online initiative launched to raise awareness about autism and reduce bullying in schools and combat the ostracism of autistic children.
For now, Julia, who is described as an old friend of Elmo’s, will not appear on the broadcast programme, but rather, in a digital storybook available online and in print – materials associated with the autism initiative.
In addition to the storybook with audio narration, the website also features videos about autism and “animated aid cards” that help teach basic skills to autistic students. An app with games and activities is also available.
In one scene in the new online book, Elmo introduces Julia to another friend: Abby. But Julia does not respond to Abby, prompting the latter to say, “Your friend doesn’t like me.”
“Elmo’s daddy told Elmo that Julia has autism,” Elmo explains. “So she does things a little differently. Sometimes Elmo talks to Julia using fewer words and says the same things a few times.”
Autistic children have different characteristics: some cannot maintain eye contact, are sensitive to noise and at times cannot talk. Because of this, some groups consider autism a syndrome, while others say it’s a different means of expression.
But for the makers of Sesame Street, Julia will help tackle the prevailing problems of stigma and isolation. According to one study, six out of 10 children with autism have been bullied.
“We know that a child with autism is five times more likely to be bullied than a neurotypical child,” Betancourt said. “It is our hope that kids with autism will feel more included and understood as the general public becomes more aware of the similarities all children share.”
Some experts believe that creating Julia is a step in the right direction and hope to see Sesame Street expand this initiative.
“Children are especially visual beings and develop while playing and making art,” said Shireen Yaish, an art psychotherapist and founder of the Kaynouna Arab Art Therapy Center in Amman, Jordan.
“That’s why incorporating autism in Sesame Street, which is educational and mainstream, will not only help normalise the fact that there are autistic children, but will also help children understand autism and how to be tolerant and accepting,” Yaish told Al Jazeera.