Introducing a new character to a kid’s show is hard. And when that character is also intended to create awareness around ASD and the variety of ways spectrum disorders can affect individuals, it is a huge challenge. But when Sesame Street introduced Julia, the show’s creators intentionally added several elements to help kids understand ASD and Julia better.
We first meet Julia doing an activity she enjoys, with people she knows and with whom she is comfortable. And then Big Bird walks in.
When Big Bird says hello, Julia doesn’t answer. When the others show off their paintings, Julia doesn’t. And when Big Bird tries to give Julia a high five, she walks away. Big Bird feels confused and rejected by this, but the adult in the scene explains to Big Bird that Julia takes extra time to get to know people. Not because she’s shy, but because she has autism.
And this is where the show’s writers have added something subtle but incredibly important. When Big Bird asks what autism is, the adult says “For Julia, it means…”
This really goes a long way toward helping kids understand that autism isn’t the same for everyone. That while Julia doesn’t say a lot or do what you expect in an interaction, she does things in a ‘Julia sort-of way.’ Not an autism sort of way. Later on in the episode, Julia and her friends play a game where she creates the rules, modeling sensitive, cooperative behavior for neurotypical kids watching.
As parents of an autistic child with the added challenge of epilepsy, Julia doesn’t reflect our experience. But one character could never reflect the entirety of a spectrum disorder. And by pointedly addressing that this is Julia’s experience, Sesame Street has introduced young children to a larger and more nuanced conversation in a sensitive and inclusive way.