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Image: Sesame Street

Julia, Sesame Street’s Muppet with autism, hits the small screen

Alongside Kermit, Oscar the Grouch and Elmo, this month, tiny fans of Sesame Street will meet Julia. Like her Muppet friends, she’s furry and has a cartoonish face. But four-year-old Julia differs on the inside: she has autism.

The show deliberately created her character to lessen the stigma of the developmental disorder, which affects 1 in 68 American kids and 1 in 100 Australian ones (though these rates could be artificially inflated).

To achieve their aim, Julia, unlike many kids with autism in real life, is embraced by her puppet peers. Though this doesn’t mean her quirks aren’t evident.

In one scene, she is playing a shape-finding game with Abby, Oscar and Grover. “You’re lucky,” Abby tells Grover, “you have Julia on your team, and she is really good at finding shapes!”

Another act depicts Julia ignoring Big Bird as he approaches her. Abby explains her behaviour to Big Bird: “She does things just a little differently, in a Julia sort of way”. Julia then laughs and devises a new game, which the other characters play with her.

Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s senior vice-president of US social impact, told the AP she sought to portray autism’s strengths, and the commonalities between kids with and without autism.

Julia’s arrival on TV is timely, amidst a slew of new un-, or under-represented minorities in kids’ productions. The live-action remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast features an openly gay character (Gaston’s sidekick), while the Yellow Ranger in the upcoming Power Rangers film is portrayed as a lesbian. And with each new Disney cartoon comes an ethnic, female protagonist; think Moana and Tiana.

Like other producers, Sesame Workshop probably knows that, in 2017, inclusion and diversity can’t remain mere buzzwords.

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