There's a new Muppet on the block for Sesame Street fans to learn to love — but there's something that sets this character apart from Elmo and the rest of the crew. Julia, a charming-yet-bashful 4-year-old, has red hair, green eyes, and — most importantly — autism.
"There's so many people that have given her what she is. I'm just hoping to bring her the heart," Stacy Gordon, the puppeteer playing Julia, told the NPR.
Turns out Gordon has a very personal connection to Julia: she used to do therapeutic work for people with autism and her son is on the autism spectrum, too. And Julia, Gordon said, will help other kids understand those like her.
"Man, I really wish that kids in my son's class had grown up with a Sesame Street that had a modeling [of] the behavior of inclusion of characters with autism," Gordon added.
Sesame Street has dealt with many important topics over the course of its time on the air — from global issues to social issues, from diseases to disorders, and from problems that affect the old and young alike. For example, the South African version of the show introduced the world's first HIV-positive Muppet, a lively five-year-old named Kami, way back in 2002. Other topics have included, but are not limited to, discussions on: nutrition, food insecurity, recycling, environmentalism, divorce, parental incarceration, bullying, cultural differences, blindness, malaria, and even death.
Though this is Julia's TV debut, she's not new to the brand. The Muppet wasn't a main character at first but has been in development for the show for three years. Sesame Workshop has been conducting its own research in an effort to accurately portray what it's like to have autism, something the U.S. Centers for Disease Control notes that affects 1 in 68 children.
"She's one of the kids, she's one of the gang," said Rose Jochum, director of internal initiatives at the Autism Society of America. "It's really meaningful to see her there, singing with Elmo, Big Bird, and all the other characters. It's great."
The Autism Society of America was just one of the 14 groups Sesame Workshop consulted in regards to Julia. While all of the groups have their own beliefs on how autism should be treated or addressed, Jochum said they were all in agreement when it came to Julia.
"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," Sherrie Westin, an executive vice president at Sesame Workshop, said.
Julia is set to appear in two episodes of Sesame Street's current season — making her TV debut on April 10 — and more in the future.