'Sesame Street' Debuts Character Who Has Autism

For those who grew up with Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, and other classic Sesame Street characters, it may seem odd to hear that a new Muppet is coming to town — but the appearance of Sesame Street's new Muppet, Julia, is incredibly important for both kids and parents. Julia has autism, a disorder that researchers believe is often under-diagnosed in girls, making the decision to include her in the show especially moving.

Julia first appeared in an online Sesame Street storybook called "Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children." Sesame Street creators wanted to reduce the stigma often associated with autism and provide parents and caregivers with digital story cards and videos that could make daily life easier. Julia's online presence was a huge success, and once fans were introduced to Julia, they quickly called for her to be seen on television, as well.

Now, Julia will finally be joining the regular cast of Sesame Street, and her puppet was crafted with careful consideration. She couldn't have ribbons or barrettes in her hair, and her bangs couldn't fall into her eyes, according to CBS News. Her dress had to be loose and the puppet was built so that she could close her eyes if she was feeling overwhelmed.

Stacey Gordon, the puppeteer who plays Julia, has a son with autism. "As the parent of a child with autism, I wished that it had come out years before, when my own child was at the Sesame Street age," she told CBS News on Sunday.

The regular appearance of Julia on Sesame Street is important in so many ways. Not only do all children deserve representation in popular culture, but Gordon believes Julia's existence will help other children understand and empathize with kids with autism.

"Having Julia on the show and seeing all of the characters treat her with compassion... it’s huge," Gordon told 60 Minutes, according to New York Daily News. She continued:

Had my son's friends been exposed to his behaviors through something that they had seen on TV before they experienced them in the classroom, they might not have been frightened. They might not have been worried when he cried. They would have known that he plays in a different way and that that's okay.

Making Julia a female character, rather than male, will also help parents in another way. According to the BBC, girls with autism are under-diagnosed, since their symptoms often appear in different ways than they do with boys. Girls are often misdiagnosed with other conditions and don't receive the support they need, according to Scientific American. When they do receive the correct diagnosis, it's typically later in life than their male counterparts.

Sesame Street writers worked with researchers for three years when creating the original Julia storybook, and they want to increase awareness and empathy among the public. On Sesame Street, Julia will show heightened sensitivity to noise and have meltdowns when she's overwhelmed.

"We’re going to tell you more about what that means, and why she’s acting this way," Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of Curriculum and Content at Sesame Workshop, told CBS. "Give children that information. She’s acting this way because she’s on the autism spectrum."

Julia will be joining Sesame Street in April. Parents who can't wait to meet her can check out the "Sesame Street and Autism" storybook online and get a sneak peek of the newest Muppet to join the program.