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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Relating to Julia: New ‘Sesame Street’ Muppet teaches kids about autism

Julia the Muppet bounces while playing tag. From his living room, 6-year-old Grayson Mortlock starts jumping up and down in tandem with the newest character on TV’s “Sesame Street.”

Julia has autism. Grayson has autism too, and the “Meet Julia” episode seemed to hold his attention, said his mom, Brittney Mortlock. She and her husband hosted a few families involved with the Isaac Foundation, a local autism group, to watch the character’s premiere last week in their north Spokane home.

About 12 kids ages 4-14 and parents watched the first show depicting the Muppet character.

“Overall, it was good, and I think it spoke to a kid’s mind,” said Mortlock, describing it as a positive step introducing autism to young kids, and more inclusive of children with the condition.

“It’s almost more important for kids to understand, so the children with autism feel included,” she said. “Autism can come across as cold or without feeling, but that’s quite the opposite. They have feelings and just might respond differently.”

“Sesame Street” developers prepared for Julia and a “See Amazing in All Children” initiative geared to young children by consulting with organizations, experts and families within the autism community. The effort also released a storybook, app, and website leading up to the “Meet Julia” episode.

Autism is a complex developmental disability that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. One in 68 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism, which has no known single cause.

Defined as a spectrum disorder, it impacts individuals differently and to varying degrees. Some people might avoid eye contact, shy away from engaging with people, have sensory issues, focus intensely on a task or repeat phrases and behaviors.

When Big Bird asks in the episode what autism is, his human friend Alan tries to explain. “For Julia, it means that she might not answer you right away.” He says she might not do what Big Bird expects, such as giving him a high-five.

Julia does things just a little differently, in a Julia sort of way, her friend Abby says. “And she’s a lot of fun.”

Julia joins Abby and Elmo in a game of tag. She flaps her hands when she’s excited and prefers painting with a brush rather than the finger-painting that others are doing. When a firetruck siren comes near the group, she appears distraught because of her sensitivity to loud noise.

“I liked that they were drawing comparisons that she’s different, but the other characters were different, too,” said Holly Lytle, executive director of Isaac Foundation, which supports families dealing with autism. “They did an excellent job with the terminology.

“There were subtle nuances that we noticed as parents. It was a great starting point. I hope they take it further, like teaching kids how to approach them to play and reach out. We as parents are always teaching our kids about how to interact.”

Julia offers a basic interpretation of autism appropriate for the show’s targeted ages, said Dawn Sidell, executive director of the Northwest Autism Center in Spokane, which provides therapeutic services. The segments also could be used for a broader discussion among educators, she added.

Sidell said about eight staff members who watched the episode agreed it addressed one of the biggest challenges kids with autism face: isolation. “This show promotes inclusivity, not just those with autism but all who have differences. That’s a very healthy message to send.

“The other thing we really liked is how they said, ‘This is how autism looks for Julia.’ I think it will be important to send the message that everyone experiences autism differently.”

Movies and entertainment depicting characters with autism haven’t necessarily got it all wrong in the past, according to Sidell, who said the famous “Rain Man” portrayed by Dustin Hoffman is an accurate interpretation for a small percentage of people in the autism spectrum.

“Anytime you encourage children and society at large to acknowledge diversity, it’s very helpful,” Sidell said. “I especially think that looking at differences that have a neurodevelopmental aspect to them versus a physical aspect is something we haven’t really focused a lot on.

“What we’re doing now is acknowledging there are many different levels of autism. My only concern is we have to be careful not to minimize the impact that autism can and does have on some individuals. The impact can be so debilitating that they require very intensive support to be healthy and feel safe.”

Jess Silvernail, Isaac Foundation development director, echoed that the Julia character is a logical first step geared to children.

“Our hope really is for this to be informative and educational for families who don’t have children in the autism spectrum,” said Silvernail, whose daughter was diagnosed at age 3.

“Having ‘Sesame Street’ incorporate a child into their program that is going to explain in real simple terms what it’s like having a child with autism or being an individual with autism is going to be huge for our autism community. It will also hopefully bring awareness.”

Silvernail counts as another breakthrough the decision to make the child with autism a girl, when most people presume only boys have autism. It is more prevalent among boys; autism spectrum disorder is about 4.5 times more common in boys than girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Riplee Norris, Silvernail’s now 11-year-old daughter, is high-functioning with autism but could relate to Julia trying to communicate with her peers. She and her mom watched a clip where other kids weren’t understanding what Julia tried to communicate, and Norris quickly picked up on that.

“So often, my daughter starts talking about something and we’re like, rewind and tell me exactly where this is coming from,” Silvernail said. “Eye contact is a huge thing. I tell my daughter to look into my eyes when we’re talking because I know she retains more that way.”

“People are already wired that this disorder commonly affects boys,” Silvernail added. “The perception around how it will affect a girl is even harder to accept for some families and the community, so I think picking a girl kind of helps break through that stigma.”

Riplee gave her approval after seeing the first full episode. “I like Julia,” she said. “I think she’d make a great friend for anyone, because everyone’s different.”

At the Mortlocks’ home, Billy Cabbage and his family were among those watching Julia. Cabbage, whose 4-year-old son, Grady, has autism, thought the show was helpful. “If kids get a chance to have exposure before they meet someone with autism, they have an idea what to expect.”

Promoting the “Sesame Street” introduction of Julia, the Panhandle Autism Society based in Coeur d’Alene saw a huge response, board president Melaine Collins said. A Facebook post got shared more than 40 times in one day, and more than 4,300 people clicked to read the article.

Collins, who works at a school, said she first heard about Julia at a 2015 national Autism Society conference, and the chapter has received many of the initiative’s materials to give members. She thought the “Meet Julia” episode touched on key factors.

“I thought they did a really good job reaching the typical peer,” said Collins, who provides behavioral therapy for kids with autism. “They really encouraged the kids to be more tolerant of all kids, whether they play differently or the same.

“They talked about sensory issues with her using a paint brush. So often, the kids don’t want to touch things. They also touched on the loud noises and even having her taking a break to calm down. That’s something we see all the time among kids with autism.”

Young autistic children include some who are good at communicating, but many aren’t verbal, Collins added. Julia is shown to speak a few words when she plays with her new friends. “You can’t do verbal and nonverbal in the same character.

“As far as Julia, her representation of a child with autism, she represented a pretty broad range of kids on the spectrum she’s meant to exemplify. What happened at the beginning is she didn’t respond to a question, which is very typical of a child with autism.”

Overall, Collins said, the depiction provides concepts kids can understand to recognize another child’s strengths and uniqueness. “The kids I watched it with had a lot of questions and seemed to enjoy it.”