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Spokane autism advocate: Sesame Street Muppet great for community

UPDATED: Tue., April 2, 2019

This image released by Sesame Workshop shows Julia, a new autistic muppet character debuting on the 47th Season of “Sesame Street,” on April 10, 2017, on both PBS and HBO. (Zach Hyman / Sesame Workshop)
This image released by Sesame Workshop shows Julia, a new autistic muppet character debuting on the 47th Season of “Sesame Street,” on April 10, 2017, on both PBS and HBO. (Zach Hyman / Sesame Workshop)

Meet Julia. She has electric-red hair, a yellow-felt body, loves painting and lives on “Sesame Street.” Julia, a Muppet on the long-running children’s show, has autism. She debuted in April 2017, but now viewers can get a larger picture of Julia’s life with the introduction of her family.

“For us to bring Julia’s family to life, it’s now expanding Julia’s world and then also showing what Julia shares in common with all children around family life, but also acknowledging that there are some challenges,” said Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop senior vice president for U.S. social impact.

Stacey Gordon, Julia’s Muppeteer, has a child with autism, Betancourt said. “Sesame Street” also regularly solicits feedback from the autism community to ensure Julia is an authentic portrayal of a child with autism.

An example of this is Rose, Julia’s companion dog. Companion and service dogs are common in the autism community, said Dana Stevens, Northwest Autism Center director.

“Wandering or elopement, it’s not running away necessarily,” Stevens said. “… There’s multiple reasons why (children wander away). Trying to get away from stressful situations, overstimulus, they want to go someplace and they don’t understand why they can’t, and they’re so fixated on going that they don’t realize their environment.”

Stevens said such circumstances are dangerous: Children with autism have a 50 percent chance of wandering off, four times greater than other children. Drowning is the cause of 90 percent of deaths of children with autism.

Stevens said service dogs can be a great tool to deal with wandering. In the case of Julia, Rose is meant to be a companion dog, Betancourt said.

“It’s a little easier to acquire a companion dog who again is aware of Julia’s autism but is also part of the family,” Betancourt said.

The Sesame Street and Autism website has videos featuring Julia and her family, including a musical number, “I Love My Family.” The new episode and the resources on the website are an effort to recognize Autism Awareness month.

“Sesame Street” said the new episode – which debuts Monday – will focus on Julia’s haircut. Stevens said this is a good choice, because many children on the spectrum struggle with this activity. The Northwest Autism Center provides intensive treatment to help children with autism tolerate a haircut. Betancourt said the haircut is another way Julia deals with her sensory sensitivity.

“We decided that, for our program, it was a wonderful way to model for not only Julia, but include her friends,” Betancourt said. “Alan sort of sets up a situation where Julia, they almost role-play a haircut and they go over all the parts of going through a haircut. … Sensory sensitivity is addressed in the haircut episode in the context of what is a scissor, what does it do.”

Julia is important for representation of children with disabilities, but Stevens said the Muppet also teaches children that differences can be understood and embraced. Betancourt echoed this sentiment, pointing out that many children have anxiety surrounding haircuts.

“It’s their peers, they are going to grow up with these children, and it’s just like any other form of diversity,” Stevens said. “It’s just a matter of understanding and knowing how to be a friend to everybody.”

Stevens said 1 in 59 children has autism; for boys, the occurrence is 1 in 37.

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