When I heard that the children’s television show Sesame Street would be introducing a character on the Autism Spectrum, you could say I was skeptical. However, the new Muppet, named “Julia,” turned out to be a wonderfully sympathetic portrayal of an autistic child, and a telling sign that after 40+ years, Sesame Street still has the magic touch.
Sesame Street, first aired in 1969, was the brainchild of television producer Joan Ganz Cooney. Cooney had realized how much of children’s television at the time wasn’t challenging kids’ minds enough or teaching them life lessons, and, upon teaming up with writers from The Electric Company and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, founded The Children’s Television Workshop, now known as Sesame Workshop. The crew also teamed up with Jim Henson’s Muppets, bringing characters like Ernie and Bert, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, and many others to the small screen for over 45 years.
During that time, Sesame Street has tackled almost every major topic a child could need to learn, from their ABCs to marriage to the death of a loved one, which was handled beautifully in their 1983 episode “Goodbye Mr. Hooper,” following actor Will Lee’s untimely death.
The series has always prided itself for its extensive research, and the character Julia was no exception. Great care was taken to make Julia as relatable and accurate as possible, to teach the kids at home that just because other kids act different, it doesn’t mean they can’t be your friend.
Julia had been introduced already online in YouTube shorts and on 60 Minutes, but the episode “Meet Julia,” aired on April 10, was her first appearance in the series proper. Her Muppeteer, Stacey Gordon, even has a special connection to the character, being the mother of a 13-year-old autistic boy. Now, let’s go through Julia’s first scene point-by-point, from both an autistic perspective and a lifelong Muppet fan perspective.
The segment begins with Muppet characters Elmo and Abby Cadabby finger-painting with Julia, helped by human character Alan, who proceeds to give the iconic “Hi, welcome to Sesame Street” introduction. Big Bird, still played by veteran Muppeteer Caroll Spinney, then enters the scene and tries to introduce himself to Julia. Julia, however, does not respond, as she is far too invested in her painting. Her actions here are true to form for many autistic people, who get so caught up in their Special Interests that the rest of the world tends to get drowned out.
Abby then expresses her love for how the paint feels against her fingers, causing Julia to recoil in disgust. Abby quickly apologizes to Julia, acknowledging that she dislikes fingerpainting and therefore prefers brushes. Julia’s aversion to fingerpainting is a great example of texture sensitivity, a common trait among those on the spectrum, and Abby’s response is a good way of teaching neurotypical children how to deal with their autistic friends’ more minor sensory triggers.
After they finish painting, Big Bird offers to give her a high-five, but she doesn’t notice and goes off to play with Abby. Big Bird at first thinks she doesn’t like him, and then thinks that she’s just shy, but Alan takes him aside and tells him about Julia’s autism. He says that, for Julia, it means she might not answer right away or do what one would normally expect. Alan’s talk with Big Bird excellently informs children of how they might see autism at school or in their neighborhood, and that it’s nothing to be weirded out by.
Julia returns to the scene, and Big Bird suggests they play tag. Hopping up and down and flapping her hands (a common “stim” with autistic folk), Julia excitedly agrees. However, Julia’s form of tag incorporates her hopping, to the bemusement of Alan and Big Bird. Alan tells him that, even though she does things differently, the things she does are still worth trying.
As they’re playing, fire trucks drive by, loudly blaring their sirens. Julia is notably disturbed by this, covering her ears and panicking. Big Bird, not understanding the situation, tags her, making it even worse. She’s led away by Alan with her stuffed bunny, which she uses to calm down. Big Bird is confused, since from his perspective the trucks weren’t that loud. Elmo and Abby explain how Julia’s ears are very sensitive, also a common autistic trait.
Up on the garden rooftop (a new location on the street this season), Julia is stroking her stuffed bunny and listening to Alan talk calmly. Alan suggests she try deep breathing, which helps immensely. This scene is a fantastic demonstration of how to help autists suffering from a sensory overload, especially the later part with her deep breathing exercises.
Down below, Big Bird laments that Julia isn’t like any of his other friends, but Elmo poignantly states that everyone on Sesame Street is different and unique, like Julia. Julia comes down and Big Bird apologizes, and all the characters proceed to sing the song “We Can All Be Friends,” a touching, if a little generic, message.
Now that I have finished gushing over the scene, it’s high time for some critiques. If I had to critique Julia herself, I would say that the one shortcoming is that she isn’t as unique as the other Sesame mainstays or recurring characters. As a kid, I related to Ernie or Oscar far more than I would Julia. Her design also is bit too bland for my tastes, looking like she came straight out of the Whatnot Workshop (the term “Whatnot” referring to generic background Muppets with swappable facial features).
To critique it from a Muppet fan standpoint, Caroll Spinney (Big Bird’s Muppeteer) is seriously starting to show his age. He’s 83 years old as of this article, and throughout the entire scene he sounds tired and confused. His singing at the end is certainly not as energetic as it should be, sounding like he’s just going through the motions. At this point Matt Vogel, Big Bird’s understudy for the past 20 years, should consider taking on more of the character’s appearances.
On the Asperger’s Syndrome subreddit, /r/aspergers, user /u/hotcaulk said, “I like the way they’re doing it. It definitely explained some things kids didn’t understand/were afraid of when I was little. I like that the voice actress/puppeteer has a son on the spectrum and she uses that experience to help her interpretation of her character.”
User /u/LilyoftheRally stated, “I’m glad they made her a girl (because autism affects girls differently than boys, and is often overlooked in girls and women who’d be considered “high-functioning”), and I’ve been reading news articles about her to see how well the general media discusses her and her autism. I normally have a problem with articles on autism only focusing on autistic children and their parents (as opposed to autistic adults), but I don’t mind it in an article about this character because Sesame Street is a show aimed at little kids anyway.”
In another comment thread, /u/Jimjongjung said “It’s a step in the right direction but doesn’t it seem like they’re othering her in that really condescending way […] Like for example the inicitive [sic] that she was brought in under is called that ‘Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.’ It’s like you wouldn’t have to look for amazing in other children. The implication i [sic] suppose is that the child is broken and you need to really look for the good.”
The episode does a great job educating children about accepting their autistic peers. My one wish is that Julia becomes a memorable character in her own right, rather than being just an example of an issue, only created for a “special episode” and never focused on again.
But I’m going to stay optimistic. After all, like the song says, “everything’s a-ok” when you’re on Sesame Street.