For almost 50 years, Sesame Street has captivated kids and adults alike as one of the most well-known children's television programs in history. Many of its "Muppets" are among the most recognized characters in popular culture: Big Bird, Elmo, and Cookie Monster among them. A few years ago, the show introduced a new muppet for the first time in more than a decade. This year, the show is introducing yet another new character: when is Julia's premiere on Sesame Street? She's the first Muppet with autism.
Sesame Street has been on the air since 1969, meaning many kids today have parents and even grandparents who grew up watching the show, too. The beloved program has spawned some of the most well-loved of fictional characters: Kermit the Frog, Bert and Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch. The show was always meant to be more than just entertainment, though: one of the executives who conceptualized Sesame Street got the idea for educational children's programming when he realized his young daughter was so fascinated by television (which was still somewhat new at the time) that she would happily sit in front of it and watch test patterns, according to TIME. Over the next several decades the show became not just a teaching tool, but an essential piece of American culture.
The show has not, however, stayed stuck in the past: as the world changed, Sesame Street often changed with it – most often to reflect new ideas in child psychology, teaching, and parenting, and attempted to influence them too, according to The Atlantic. In reflecting the changing times, the show has also made concerted efforts over the years to promote cultural diversity, and to recognize that American children have a wide breadth of growing-up experiences, according to Newsweek.
The show's newest cast member, a Muppet named Julia, is addressing a kind of growing-up experience that will be familiar to at least 1 in 68 U.S. children, and many more siblings, parents, friends, and teachers: growing up with autism. While the character has been part of the show's franchise, in the form of books and digital shorts, since last year, Julia will debut on Sesame Street April 10, according to NPR.
The creation of the character involved a lot of research, and more than 14 autism awareness and advocacy groups were consulted, according to NPR. Stacy Gordon, one of the show's puppeteers, was selected to play Julia — which means a lot to her personally, as her son was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). As she told NPR:
I really wish that kids in my son's class had grown up with a Sesame Street that had modeling [of] the behavior of inclusion of characters with autism.
Julia reportedly exhibits many of the traits that children with autism tend to demonstrate: repetitive motions, "flapping" of hands and arms, repeating words or phrases, and social behaviors like not making eye contact, or becoming overstimulated in loud, brightly lit environments. The team who created Julia spent years talking to families who had children with autism in order to make the depiction as authentic as possible. Of course, not every child with autism exhibits the same behaviors, or has the same degree of difficulty socially. “We wanted to promote a better understanding and reduce the stigma often found around these children," show writer Christine Ferrao told 60 Minutes. As the other characters on the show interact with Julia, they often explain her behaviors in a calm, almost casual way, saying things like "sometimes it takes her a little longer to do things," according to Slate.
Julia also gets to showcase some of the incredible talents and strengths that children with autism demonstrate. As Abby Cadabby noted in one of the preview videos with her new friend on the show's YouTube channel, Julia "can remember all the words to a lot of songs," according to Yahoo. For many families who love a child with autism, the fact that Julia demonstrates more than just the misunderstood and sometimes challenges aspects of autism will no doubt mean a great deal.
Sesame Street is independently produced by Sesame Workshops, but does rely on funding by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help it reach children nationwide through stations like PBS. The CPB has come under threat by the recent budget proposed by President Donald Trump, but according to TIME Money, it costs Americans just $1.37 each per year.