It was a Thursday evening, and puppeteer Stacey Gordon was hard at work in her Phoenix, Arizona studio when she received the call of a lifetime.
Matt Vogel, Sesame Street‘s Muppet Captain and Big Bird understudy, called to let Gordon know that the show’s producers picked her to play Julia, the first-ever autistic Muppet and a new addition to the broadcast. The call left her stunned — so much so, she almost couldn’t absorb the news.
“I thought he said a different name,” Gordon says, laughing. “And then I was like, ‘Wait. That was my name.'”
Now, as both a puppeteer and mom of a 13-year-old autistic boy, she’s “thrilled and indescribably honored” to operate a Muppet who will bring more awareness and compassion around autism into millions of children’s homes.
Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street, announced Sunday that Julia would join the program’s regular cast. Julia isn’t exactly a new face — she was first introduced in October 2015 as a digital Muppet through the organization’s broader autism initiative, Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children. But Julia’s creation as a walk-on character ushers in a variety of new resources about autism from Sesame Workshop, from English and Spanish-language ebooks to digital live-action segments on YouTube.
They’re resources Gordon wishes were around when her son was younger. His classmates often didn’t know how to react when he was having a hard time in preschool, and their parents would approach Gordon with concerns.
“If they understood autism, and if they were around this message of inclusion and understanding when they were in preschool, then I don’t know that we would have had to have those conversations,” she says.
Approximately 1 in 68 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, which means the chances that children will at least interact with an autistic child, especially once they reach school age, are very high. The visibility of four-year-old Julia helps autistic children know that they aren’t alone, often teaching them what “autism” means for the first time. She can also teach non-autistic children about the disorder, and how to be accepting.
“When you’re the parent of a kid with autism, you don’t ever leave it.”
Sherrie Westin, executive vice president of global impact and philanthropy at Sesame Workshop, says reaching both of those groups of children was the goal, encouraging empathy and understanding.
“The response to Julia was so enormous,” Westin says, referring to Julia’s appearance online and in animated storybooks. “When we launch an initiative like Sesame Street and Autism, it’s ongoing. It means there’s an area that we believe we should be addressing. It means there’s an issue that’s significant in terms of its impact.”
Bringing Julia to life, she says, means reaching even more children and families.
Sesame Workshop has worked with more than 250 experts and organizations within the autism community to help with its See Amazing initiative. Gordon also uses her firsthand experiences with her son, as well as an autistic girl she used to work with, to portray Julia accurately.
“When you’re the parent of a kid with autism, you don’t ever leave it,” Gordon says. “You’re around it all of the time. So, I was able to see what he went through and his own sensory processing issues and things like that, and just kind of applied it to Julia.”
“With any social impact initiative, we always start by learning.”
For example, Sesame Street viewers will see Julia get upset by loud sirens. She has trouble communicating with Big Bird when they first meet, leading Big Bird to think Julia doesn’t like him — something Gordon has seen happen with her son, too. The Muppet also has two separate sets of arms; one set is specifically for when Julia “flaps” her hands, a common form of stimulation for autistic kids.
See Amazing is one of many social impact initiatives from Sesame Workshop. Last year, it started distributing high-quality educational resources to refugee children and also introduced Zari, the first Afghan Muppet, who talks about the importance of education for girls. It’s all part of inclusion and making sure a wide array of children are represented on-screen and online — what Westin calls “a core part of Sesame’s DNA.” And it starts with the community.
“With any social impact initiative, we always start by learning,” she says. “We start by bringing together advisers. We have great in-house resources in terms of child development, but when there’s a particular area of expertise, like autism, we want to make sure we’re tapping those experts.”
Gordon hopes Julia will help foster more acceptance, and also show that no one person’s experience with autism is the same.
“It’s not in spite of autism that Julia brings gifts to Sesame Street, but it is through her autism.”
“I asked my son once if he ever wished he didn’t have autism. And he said no, because he wouldn’t be himself without autism,” Gordon says.
She referenced a popular saying: It’s not in spite of autism that he does what he does, but it’s through autism.
“My hope is that … it’s not in spite of autism that Julia brings gifts to Sesame Street, but it is through her autism.
Sesame Street‘s “Meet Julia” episode will air April 10 on HBO and PBS KIDS in the U.S., as well as Cartoonito UK, ABC Australia and Televisa in Mexico. A more global rollout of the episode is planned for later this year.