A new muppet is making waves on Sesame Street in the best way. Julia, a muppet with Autism, is changing the way parents and children feel about themselves and relate their peers.
One in 68 American children have been diagnosed with autism, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The same report shows that on average, children are diagnosed with autism between the ages of 3 and 4. Sesame Street’s target audience is 3 to 5-year-olds.
It is important to recognize this shift in media representation and celebrate it by posting about it, retweeting videos of Julia and demonstrating that the public notices and encourages representation of all people in media and at all ages.
Research by education scholar Dorothy Hurley and others have shown that children gain understanding of their environment, the difference between good and bad, and information about group membership through the TV shows and movies they watch. Because of this, especially when it has to do with media intended for children, it is critical to portray a wide variety of people. Diverse representation of people in media gives children a more complete picture of the world around them and more of a capacity for empathy.
After a Sesame Workshop initiative conducted research dedicated to meeting the needs of more vulnerable families, Julia started last year as a character in Sesame’s books as a part of a campaign called “See Amazing in All Children.” Julia will be featured on the Sesame Street show for the first time on April 10.
The inclusion of Julia on Sesame Street helps children with autism see that there is someone like them and gives them a character they can relate to. Author Roxane Gay suggests that the lack of diversity in media sends a message to minorities that their “stories and ways of seeing the world are not as valuable.”
Furthermore, the ways the other characters respond to Julia provides context and behavioral explanation to children without autism. Hurley says that film and shows geared toward children impart “cultural information about themselves, others and the relative status of group membership.” She explains that “the images are then translated into beliefs children hold about status in particular group membership.” In this way, Julia’s interactions with other characters on the show help children without autism learn how to befriend peers on the autism spectrum.
Stacy Gordon, the puppeteer that plays Julia, said her son is on the autism spectrum.
“Man, I really wish that kids in my son’s class had grown up with a Sesame Street that had modeling [of] the behavior of inclusion of characters with autism,” Gordon said to NPR.
Julia, with her sweet demeanor and curious mind, will inspire and encourage millions. If just one muppet can make that much of a difference, imagine what would happen if diverse representation permeated all areas of media.