Sesame Street is one of the longest-running shows on television – yet, unless you have sprogs of your own, we doubt you’ve caught many episodes since you were a child yourself.
However, this week, the show has made headlines all over the world, taking over our social media feeds in a very big way - and it’s all thanks to their newest muppet, Julia.
Much like Elmo, the Cookie Monster, Big Bird, and the gang, Julia is a brightly-coloured character, lovingly crafted out of felt and brought to life by one of the many puppeteers working on the show.
However there is something about Julia which sets her apart from her fellow Sesame Street neighbours: she has autism.
Around 700,000 people in the UK are estimated to be on the autism spectrum. Together with their families, this means that autism is a part of daily life for approximately 2.8 million people.
So it makes sense that Sesame Street, often praised for being one of the most inclusive shows on television, has decided to break down barriers and address some of the issues around autism in a way that children can understand.
“The big discussion right at the start was, ‘How do we do this? How do we talk about autism?’” show writer Christine Ferraro told the CBS News show 60 Minutes.
“It's tricky because autism is not one thing, because it is different for every single person who has autism.”
In her debut episode, Julia will demonstrate some common characteristics of autism. For example, when Big Bird is introduced to her, she studiously ignores him.
His yellow feathers distinctly ruffled by the encounter, Big Bird wonders aloud whether “maybe she didn’t like me”. But the other muppets tell him: “It’s just that Julia has autism. So sometimes it takes her a little longer to do things.”
Later, when a group of children start a game of tag, Julia begins jumping up and down with excitement – again, something which “can be typical of some kids with autism”.
Instead of poking fun at her or rejecting her outright, the children create a new game in which they can all jump up and down together.
“We’re pretty good at understanding people,” points out Elmo. “[After all,] we live with a grouch.”
Julia’s puppeteer, Stacey Gordon, feels extremely connected to her muppet, particularly as she is the mother of a son with autism.
“It’s important for kids without autism to see what autism can look like,” she said.
“Had my son’s friends been exposed to his behaviours through something that they had seen on TV before they experienced them in the classroom, they might not have been frightened. They might not have been worried when he cried.
“They would have known that he plays in a different way and that that’s OK.”
It remains to be seen as to whether Julia will become a major character in the show or not, but Ferraro is incredibly keen.
“I would love her to be [a main character],” she said. “I would love her to be not Julia, the kid on Sesame Street who has autism. I would like her to be just Julia.
“Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them,” explains The National Autistic Society.
“In particular, understanding and relating to other people, and taking part in everyday family, school, work and social life, can be harder. Other people appear to know, intuitively, how to communicate and interact with each other, yet can also struggle to build rapport with autistic people. Autistic people may wonder why they are 'different' and feel their social differences mean people don't understand them.”
To find out more about autism, including diagnosis, behaviour, and treatments available, please visit their website here.
Images: Sesame Street