Julia the Muppet represents autism

Elizabeth Shewan, Staff writer

Recently, “Sesame Street”, the beloved and long-running children’s TV show has announced its newest Muppet character.  The first in over 10 years will be Julia, a little girl with autism.

Julia is 4 years old, with red hair and green eyes. She doesn’t make eye contact or speak much, is upset by loud noises but has a gift for art.  She loves to paint.

Julia has appeared in some “Sesame Street”-related media, but will appear for the first time on the TV show on April 10. She will be puppetted by Stacy Gordon.

“Sesame Street” has never shied away from hard topics, and including a character with autism is not the easiest thing to do.

Autism being a spectrum disorder, one character cannot possibly embody every characteristic an autistic child may have, and the show seems to be realistic about that.

However, “Sesame Street” seems to be devoted to getting this character right.  Her introduction has been in the works for three years, and Sesame Workshop has consulted with 14 different autism groups.

Julia is one of the “Sesame Street” gang.  She is introduced as a long-time friend of Elmo, and becomes friends with Abby and Big Bird. To them she isn’t Julia, the girl with autism; she is just Julia. She’s not defined by her autism.

Representation is important in all media, but especially in children’s media. Millions of children have grown up watching “Sesame Street”, and the books, movies and TV shows that young children consume are pivotal to their development.

Children internalize the messages they see on TV. When children see characters that they see themselves in, they learn that they are normal and great. Children can also internalize this message about kids who are different from them.

“Sesame Street” has already made steps towards representation in the past, including characters who represent non-standard ethnicities, physical abilities and races, and with the addition of Julia, it is taking a positive step towards maintaining this legacy.

I think this is a wonderful decision, but besides the good I think this will do for children around the world, I have a personal reason to be happy.

My brother, William, is on the autism spectrum. William shares some traits with Julia; he doesn’t make eye contact, doesn’t speak much, reacts badly to loud noises and is also given to vocalizations. So,  like Julia, he can come off odd in social situations.

But to me, my brother William has always been just that: my brother. He is so much more than his autism.

He is bright and sweet and funny, and I’ve always known that, but others don’t always appreciate that, especially if they’re meeting William for the first time.

I was asked more times than I remember as a kid, “What’s wrong with your brother?”

The answer, of course, is nothing, but looking back on it, I’m not angry at my peers for their insensitive question.

They had likely never met a person with autism, or even seen a character with autism.

I watched “Sesame Street” myself as a kid. Had there been a character like Julia, a character like my brother, I would have loved it.

If other kids and adults had been more aware that people like my brother and Julia exist, things might have been easier for William and for me.

It gives me happiness I cannot put into words that autistic children of the future will be represented by Julia, and her thoughtful creators.