For the first time in a decade, the classic children's television show Sesame Street will introduce a new Muppet on the air.
Her name is Julia. She's a shy and winsome 4-year-old, with striking red hair and green eyes. Julia likes to paint and pick flowers. When Julia speaks, she often echoes what she's just heard her friends Abby and Elmo say. Julia has autism.
"There's so many people that have given her what she is. I'm just hoping to bring her the heart," says Stacy Gordon, the veteran puppeteer selected to play the part.
Presenting Julia to the gang requires a bit more explanation of her differences and hidden talents for the other Muppets — and their young viewers. As Abby Cadabby (the 3-year-old fairy played by Leslie Carrara-Rudolph) explained during NPR's recent visit to the set in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., it can be hard to get Julia's attention. Big Bird had to repeat himself to get her to listen, for example. And she sees things where others don't.
"That's just Julia being Julia," Abby said.
The role of Julia has a personal dimension for Gordon: She says she used do therapeutic work for people with autism. And Gordon says her son is on the autism spectrum, too. She believes the show will be a great resource — for students with the disorder and for their playmates.
"Man, 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," Gordon said.
Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president for U.S. social impact at parent company Sesame Workshop, has been helping plot the development of Julia for about three years. Sesame Workshop is a not-for-profit media company and an educational outfit that conducts its own research.
Betancourt says the introduction of Julia's character is a natural outcropping from other initiatives Sesame Workshop has done, pointing to programs for children with a parent who is incarcerated and for military families enduring deployments.
"Basically, in terms of vulnerable families, we're looking at families who may have particular stressors in their lives that are impacting their young children," Betancourt says, "whether it's economic or social emotional stresses or differences that they're handling at the time."
Parents of children with autism told officials at Sesame how important the show was for their kids. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, one in 68 American children have autism.
Julia started last year as a character in Sesame's books and digital offerings. Sesame decided on a two-fold mission for the related campaign "See Amazing in All Children," to give children with autism and their families someone to identify with — and those that don't a window into their world. The materials appear on a dedicated site.
Sherrie Westin, an executive vice president at Sesame Workshop who oversaw the initiative, said the campaign quickly struck a chord.
"One of my favorite stories is a mother who said that she used the book to explain to her child that she had autism like Julia," Westin said, shaking her head slightly as she teared up. "This became the tool for her to have a conversation with her 5-year-old daughter."
"And you'll love this. At the end her daughter said, 'So I'm amazing too, right?' "
The surfacing of a new permanent Sesame character is rare. Westin said it's the next logical step.
"We realized if we brought her to life appearing in Sesame Street on air as well, she would have even more impact [and] be able to reach even more children," Westin said.
The character herself is set to appear in two episodes in the current season and more the next.
"The character Julia, she has wonderful drawing skills. She's like a little budding artist," said Rose Jochum, director of internal initiatives at the Autism Society of America, which characterizes itself as the nation's oldest advocacy group for people with the disorder. "You know — autism — it brings wonderful gifts."
The society was one of 14 such autism groups consulted by Sesame Workshop. They often differ on how the disorder should be treated or addressed in public policy. Yet Jochum says they found common ground around Julia.
"She's one of the kids, she's one of the gang," Jochum said. "It's really meaningful to see her there, singing with Elmo, Big Bird and all the other characters. It's great."
A team of researchers from Georgetown University is studying how effective the program has proven for families who have experienced Sesame's autism materials. The researchers surveyed more than 1,000 families, more than a third of whom have children with autism. Preliminary findings suggest the material helps families with autistic children feel more comfortable incorporating them in broader community activities, and that families whose children do not have autism are more accepting of those kids who do.
The character Julia makes her television debut April 10 on Sesame Street on various platforms where the show's programs can be found, including PBS Kids, HBO and YouTube. She will initially appear in English and Spanish in the U.S., Australia, the U.K. and Mexico and will subsequently appear in more languages in countries throughout the world later in the year.
"It's not like there is a typical example of an autistic child, but we do believe that [with] Julia, we worked so carefully to make sure that she had certain characteristics that would allow children to identify with her," Westin said. "It's what Sesame does best, you know: Reaching children, looking at these things through their lens and building a greater sort of sense of commonality."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In the coming weeks, the classic children's TV show "Sesame Street" will introduce a new Muppet character on the air for the first time in a decade. Her name is Julia, and she has autism. NPR's David Folkenflik paid a visit to the set of "Sesame Street" to meet Julia and learn more about her role.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: If you watch "Sesame Street," you know Abby Cadabby, an ebullient 3-year-old fairy with wings and wand, a few magical powers she can sometimes control and an abiding sense of wonder. Abby introduces me to her friend Julia.
LESLIE CARRARA-RUDOLPH: (As Abby Cadabby) Julia and I, we play a lot in the garden.
FOLKENFLIK: You do?
CARRARA-RUDOLPH: (As Abby Cadabby) Yeah, we do.
FOLKENFLIK: Julia's a winsome redhead with bright green eyes. She's a bit shy, and she's a bit of an echo of her friend.
CARRARA-RUDOLPH: (As Abby Cadabby) Well, we both like nature and flowers.
STACEY GORDON: (As Julia) Flowers.
CARRARA-RUDOLPH: (As Abby Cadabby) Yeah. You like flowers don't you, Julia?
GORDON: (As Julia) Yeah.
FOLKENFLIK: Abby gently explains the challenges the other Muppets felt.
CARRARA-RUDOLPH: (As Abby Cadabby) Big Bird was a little - at first didn't know why Julia sometimes - you have to repeat things sometimes. When you say hi, she might be looking off somewhere at something magical.
FOLKENFLIK: Julia's the first character introduced on "Sesame Street" since Abby herself arrived a decade ago. And, as we said, Julia has autism. Longtime puppeteer Stacey Gordon plays the role of Julia.
GORDON: There's so many people that have given her what she is. I'm just hoping to bring her the heart.
FOLKENFLIK: Gordon tells me the role is intensely personal. She worked in the past doing therapeutic work for people with autism. And Gordon says her son is on the autism spectrum too.
GORDON: Man, I really wish that kids in my son's class had grown up with a "Sesame Street" that had modeling the behavior of inclusion of characters with autism.
FOLKENFLIK: Jeanette Betancourt has been helping plot the development of Julia for about three years. She is the senior vice president for U.S. social impact at Sesame Workshop.
JEANETTE BETANCOURT: Basically, in terms of vulnerable families, we're looking at families who may have particular stressors in their lives that are impacting their young children, whether it's economic or social-emotional stresses or differences that they're handling at the time.
FOLKENFLIK: Betancourt pointed to Sesame's materials for families with a parent in prison, for families where a parent is deployed in the military and now for autism. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimate that 1 in 68 children has some form of autism. Sesame decided on a twofold mission, to give children with autism and their families someone to identify with and those that don't a window into their world. Sherrie Westin is an executive vice president at Sesame Workshop who oversaw an initiative in which the character Julia first appeared in books and online materials.
SHERRIE WESTIN: She was in our storybooks. But we realized if we brought her to life appearing in "Sesame Street" on-air as well, she would have even more impact, be able to reach even more children.
FOLKENFLIK: The campaign is called See Amazing in all Children.
WESTIN: One of my favorite stories is a mother who said that she used the book to explain to her child that she had autism like Julia. Wow - the fact that this became the tool for her to have the conversation with her 5-year-old daughter - and you'll love this - at the end, her daughter said, so I'm amazing, too, right?
FOLKENFLIK: The character herself is set to appear in two episodes in the current season and more the next. Rose Jochum is director of internal initiatives at the Autism Society of America, the nation's oldest advocacy group for people with the disorder.
ROSE JOCHUM: The character Julia, you know, she has wonderful drawing skills. And so, you know, she's, like, a little budding artist. And you see that, you know, autism brings wonderful gifts.
FOLKENFLIK: The society was one of 14 such autism groups that Sesame consulted. They often differ on how the disorder should be treated or addressed in public policy, but Jochum says they found common ground around Julia.
JOCHUM: She's one of the kids. She's part of the gang. It's really meaningful. It's wonderful.
FOLKENFLIK: Julia will make her debut on the air on "Sesame Street" on April 10 on HBO, PBS Kids and YouTube.
CARRARA-RUDOLPH: (As Abby Cadabby) See you.
FOLKENFLIK: See you guys.
CARRARA-RUDOLPH: (As Abby Cadabby) Julia, let's go play.
FOLKENFLIK: David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN YOU TELL ME HOW TO GET TO SESAME STREET")
THE KIDS: (Singing) Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.