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‘Sesame Street’ introduces Muppet with autism

Julia, right, is a new autistic Muppet character

Julia, right, is a new autistic Muppet character debuting on "Sesame Street." Photo Credit: Sesame Workshop via AP / Zach Hyman

With a televised introduction Sunday on “60 Minutes,” viewers met the newest “Sesame Street” Muppet, the red-haired, green-eyed Julia — who has autism. Previously seen online in a “Sesame Street” animated storybook, she debuts on the long-standing children’s educational program April 10 on both HBO and PBS.

“For years, families of children with autism have asked us to address the issue,” Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, an executive with the production company Sesame Workshop, said in a statement Monday. “We heard a call to use our expertise and characters to build a bridge between the autism and neurotypical communities.” About 1 in 68 children have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Julia is the central character of the autism initiative “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children,” developed over five years with more than 250 organizations and experts. Christine Ferraro, “Sesame Street” writer for 25 years, scripted the upcoming “Meet Julia” episode. Puppeteer Stacey Gordon, who performs Julia, herself has a son with autism and has been a therapist to youngsters on the spectrum.

“Meet Julia” finds the little girl playing with fellow Muppet characters Abby and Elmo. Big Bird walks up and wants to be her new friend, but she doesn’t speak to him, leading him to believe she doesn’t like him. A similar scenario plays out in the online storybook, with Julia initially not responding to Abby at a playground.

“She does things just a little differently, in a Julia sort of way,” Abby tells Big Bird in the televised segment.

Julia, chuckling, then shows the others a new way of playing tag, and everyone joins in. But when a siren wails, she covers her ears and looks stricken. Alan, the human proprietor of Hooper’s Store, explains to the children, “She needs to take a break.” Julia does so, and afterward the game begins again.

“The ‘Meet Julia’ episode is something that I wish my son’s friends had been able to see when they were small,” Gordon told The Associated Press. “I remember him having meltdowns and his classmates not understanding how to react.”

She added, “It is so much fun to be on set with everyone, and get to play up all the positive things I’ve seen with the kids that I’ve worked with. At the same time, I come at this with a reverence. I don’t want to let the autism community down.”

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