Sesame Street is about to introduce the first permanent addition to its Muppet family since 2010: a shy 4-year-old with autism named Julia. She’ll be appearing in two episodes this season on HBO and PBS beginning April 10, with more appearances to come.
The long-running kids’ series has been a champion of diversity and inclusion for decades. In recent years, its lengthy roster of characters has grown accordingly, from the introduction of “girly-girl” Abby Cadabby in 2006 to Segi, an African-American girl with natural hair, in 2010.
The world met Julia, the first permanent Muppet to appear on the show since Segi, last year as part of Sesame Street’s autism awareness initiative, “See Amazing In All Children.” At that point, Julia was a character in children’s books, a mobile app, and online stories and videos produced to help kids better understand how to empathetically interact with people who have autism.
Julia doesn’t talk much, and she has trouble sustaining eye contact with other people. She needs time to process information and is sometimes bothered by intense sensory stimuli, specifically hot drinks and loud noises. When she’s excited, she flaps her hands. Her memory is better than most people’s, and she has excellent drawing skills.
“We chose [traits] we thought would be most helpful and most typical,” Sesame Street’s executive vice president of global impact and philanthropy, Sherrie Westin, said in an interview with the LA Times last year.
Westin told the Times that as she researched more about autism, the project evolved from being primarily about helping families with autistic children to helping neurotypical kids understand those on the autism spectrum. It was also important for Julia to be a female character rather than a boy because autism in girls is not as well understood and is diagnosed less frequently and accurately than in boys.
NPR reports that research done by Georgetown University suggests that Sesame Street’s effort at inclusion is having a positive impact on the autism community: An ongoing study has found that exposure to the Sesame Street initiative is helping families with autistic kids “feel more comfortable incorporating them in broader community activities” while helping families with neurotypical kids “be more accepting” of kids on the spectrum.
Further preliminary findings from the study will be released in April.