USA TODAY/KUSA - Sesame Street is adding a new character to its lineup with Julia, a muppet who has vibrant red hair and autism.
Julia is already a staple in Sesame Street digital and print books, and will appear in the 47th season of Sesame Street in April, the Associated Press reported.
"It’s a wonderful way to open doors for children who maybe have not been exposed to kids with autism," said Kathryn Dran, a volunteer with the Autism Society of Colorado.
Sesame Workshop, the non-profit educational organization behind Sesame Street, announced in 2015 that Julia would join Elmo and the gang in books and an app as part of the "Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children" campaign. Julia, who "does things a little differently," according to the workshop, is part of the campaign focused on reducing the stigma of autism.
Dran has a teenage son who has autism. So Julia's character is a character she is personally happy to see in the popular children's show.
"One of the things that I really enjoyed about the Julia character is that she has the flapping stim (self-stimulatory) she does. I have seen that in my son, I have seen that in other children with autism, even adults with autism who can become over-stimulated and their outlet is to flap their arms or to hop up and down," said Dran.
And while the show may make it look like Julia’s character effortlessly came together, it took years of consulting with organizations and experts in the autism community to develop her character, and the campaign, Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop's senior vice president of U.S. Social Impact, told AP.
"In the U.S., one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder," Betancourt said in the interview. "We wanted to promote a better understanding and reduce the stigma often found around these children. We're modeling the way both children and adults can look at autism from a strength-based perspective: finding things that all children share."
Dr. Tara Tartaglia, a developmental pediatrician at Children's Hospital Colorado, says taking the time creating a character like Julia is a key part in reaching that goal.
"It’s really important actually to demonstrate that the behaviors are not necessarily, are just a sign of excitement, and something that other kids notice," she said. "One of the benefits of showing that on Sesame Street is that other kids can learn that even though it looks different it still can still be a typical behavior."
Scott Badesch, president and CEO of the Autism Society of America, was involved in the committee of people in the autism community who helped Sesame Workshop think through the concept. His son, who has autism, watched the show as a child. He graduated from college last year, and is working, Badesch said.
Badesch said that it was obvious the committee "really wanted to get it right – and they got it right," with Julia's character.
“When you can have a character that shows what autism is, it will help everyone who watches Sesame Street have a really good appreciation of what a is, in a positive way,” Badesch said.
He said that people often forget that autism is a spectrum.
“People are on various points of that spectrum," he said. "The common characteristic that people don’t understand is that behind that is a human being.”
USA Today and KUSA contributed to this story. Follow Mary Bowerman on Twitter: @MaryBowerman
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