Critic's Notebook: Debuting Autistic Muppet, 'Sesame Street' Shows Skill and Sensitivity

'Sesame Street' introduces its newest muppet character, Julia, a little girl who has autism, and skillfully sidesteps some common representational traps.

A TV show that’s set an example with diversity casting and inclusiveness pretty much from the day it started in 1969, Sesame Street has once again helped to make the world a little bit sunnier, a little bit better. On April 10 on HBO, the show will introduce viewers to Julia, a muppet character with autism, thereby helping children and parents to understand a condition they’ve probably encountered many times before (it’s thought to affect 1 in 68 children in the U.S.), but may not completely understand yet.

Julia first appeared in 2015 in an online storybook called We’re Amazing, 1, 2, 3! where she meets Street regular Abby for the first time through Elmo. The red muppet explains that, “Elmo’s daddy told Elmo that Julia has autism, so she does things a little differently.” Note that there’s no judgment in that statement, no stigma or censure. Julia does things differently, but that doesn’t make her wrong or weird or any kind of problem. If she likes to make her blocks into a wall instead of tower, or spin the tires on toy cars instead of scuttling them on the ground, then viva la difference says Elmo and his friends. As you would expect from the brand that’s always been completely in step with the latest thinking on positive representation, it’s never even hinted here that autism is even a disability or a disorder; it’s just an explanation as to why she may not react to things the same way as everyone else.

This descriptive, pleasingly matter-of-fact approach extends to how Julia is brought into the world of the TV show. Practically replicating her first encounter with Abby, when she first meets Big Bird she doesn’t react when he speaks to her and instead just walks away. Big Bird immediately assumes, just as Abby did in the storybook, that Julia must not like him. But friendly grown-up Alan (Alan Muraoka) explains that it might seem that way because she just met him, but there’s more to it than the fact that she may be “shy.” It’s because she has autism, he explains.

“What’s autism?” asks Big Bird.

Alan takes a deep breath, one many teachers and parents will instantly relate to. Instead of going into anything about brain chemistry, genetics or the triad of impairments, Alan (and by extension, the show) keep things sensibly concrete and in terms kids can understand. Julia’s autism means that she may not answer people when they talk to her, and that she might not do things they expect. When she does talk, her speech may be limited or echo things other people say. At one point in the episode, Julia gets very agitated when an emergency vehicle goes by with its siren blaring. All the others recover and ignore it, but Julia stays upset and needs to go away to her quiet spot to calm down and stroke Fluffster, her toy bunny.

Like many children on the spectrum, Julia flaps her hands, something Big Bird, being of avian descent himself, can definitely relate to. In news features elsewhere, it’s been reported that the character designers had to find a way of letting the Julia puppet move both arms for her flapping motion, whereas most muppets move only one arm at a time. Incidentally, Stacey Gorden, the puppeteer who operates and voices Julia, not only has a son of her own on the spectrum, but before he was even born she worked with children diagnosed with autism — facts that consolidate the show’s bona fides and the sense that Julia has evolved from the input of many hands who understand the condition well, from the inside out.

We should expect, because it seems to be par for the course these days, that there will be those who will take issue with the show, decrying, for instance, that Julia is operated by someone who is “merely” the parent of someone with autism, and not a puppeteer with autism herself. There will always be diversity representation purists, for want of a better term, who will never be content until there’s a total 1:1 equivalence in all casting, so only people with cerebral palsy, say, can play people with cerebral palsy, and only actors with Down syndrome play people with Down syndrome, lesbians play lesbians and so on. 

Controversy could be milked from the smallest details here, so there may be those who complain that once again, Sesame Street is reinforcing the misleading cliché that autistic people have special gifts that compensate for the things they’re not good at. For example, Julia may not speak as fluently as the other 4-year-old characters on the show, but the picture she draws of Fluffster when we first meet her is artistically and developmentally years ahead of the self-portrait and landscape that Abby and Elmo have drawn. That’s not to say that there aren’t people on the spectrum who are great at drawing, because of course there are, but it’s often a source of frustration within the community of those affected by autism that outsiders so often expect freakish, savant-like abilities like in Rain Man where more often than not, none exist.

On the other hand, scrutineers might applaud the fact that the producers have chosen to make Julia someone who has noticeable verbal and social impairment, a child who is clearly challenged by language and the rules of social engagement rather than one of those people with a degree of autism that’s easily manageable for public consumption. On the slim amount of evidence seen here (and I hasten to point out that I am not a pediatrician or a psychiatrist, only a mother of a child on the spectrum), Julia seems to less able than, say, Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory, who only a few years ago would have been described as someone with Asperger's syndrome rather than someone with autism. (They are now seen as just points in the same big spectrum by the American Psychiatric Association's latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-5.)

Too often, the less able people with autism have been barely represented in film and TV depictions outside a small handful of titles (like, for instance, the excellent Australian film The Black Balloon), so it’s refreshing to see Sesame Street taking a step in this direction in a manageable, G-rated way. The show is highly unlikely to show Julia still needing diapers as an adolescent because she can’t be potty-trained, but that’s probably a good thing. Let’s accentuate the positive.

Cast: Big Bird (Caroll Spinney), Julia (Stacey Gorden), Elmo, Abby Cadabby, Alan Muraoka, Tw0-Headed Monster, Fluffster, Cookie Monster, Roscoe Orman, Alison Bartlett, Emilio Delgado, Bob McGrath, Loretta Long, Chris Knowings, Suki Lopez
Creator: The Children’s Television Workshop
Showrunner: Sesame Workshop
Episode premieres: April 10, 2017 on HBO

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