After nearly a decade of featuring the same Muppet characters, Sesame Street added a yellow Muppet named Julia. The four-year-old girl with an orange bob-cut and green eyes debuted in 2015 as part of the Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children initiative. Sesame Workshop aimed to reduce “the stigma of autism” through the characterization of Julia in the digital storybook, We’re Amazing, 1, 2, 3!.
Freelance book editor for Sesame Workshop, Leslie Kimmelman, created Julia with her own experiences in mind. As a mother of an autistic child, she was able to characterize Julia. Similarly, Julia is performed by Stacey Gordon, who also has her own experiences raising an autistic son. These personal experiences, coupled with input from teams of researchers and advocacy groups, created what they believed to be an accurate portrayal of an autistic character.
However, things have recently taken a turn, and now critics are saying that Sesame Street is stigmatizing autism.
Recently, Julia appeared in a series of Public Service Announcements (“PSAs”) produced with the Ad Council and Autism Speaks. The PSAs highlight how Julia’s friends and family have helped her learn to adapt and enjoy her life, driven by their awareness of her developmental disorder.
Unfortunately, the campaign provoked the Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) to end their partnership with Sesame Workshop. According to ASAN, the materials relating to the campaign stigmatized children with autism and their families.
ASAN Condemns the Stigmatization
According to ASAN’s statement, “Like much of Autism Speaks’ recent advertising, these PSAs use the language of acceptance and understanding to push resources that further stigma and treat autistic people as burdens on our families.”
Additionally, ASAN’s director of operations, Zoe Gross says the problem lies in what the organization is endorsing in the episodes/ads featuring Julia. One of her concerns includes a “100 Day kit” that aims to help parents for 100 days following the diagnosis.
“The 100 Day Kit encourages parents to blame family difficulties on their autistic child … and to view autism as a terrible disease from which their child can ‘get better,'” the statement reads. “It recommends compliance-based ‘therapies’ and pseudoscientific ‘autism diets,’ but fails to educate families about communication supports. It even instructs parents to go through the five stages of grief after learning that their child is autistic, as they would if the child had died.”
According to ASAN, contacts at Sesame Workshop “acknowledged that the Autism Speaks resources were harmful and portrayed autistic children in a negative light” but decided to move forward with the ad campaigns. As a result, ASAN ended their partnership.
Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president for social impact in the US says, “We truly value all our partners, including ASAN, and are disappointed, but we understand their perspective, and we respect it.”
Julia: Shifts Acceptance
It should be noted that Julia has had some major success while being on air. In May 2019, a study in the international peer-reviewed journal Autism stated, “Following exposure, parents of non-autistic children showed small but significant increases in knowledge of autism and, like parents of autistic children, greater acceptance of autistic children.”
Similarly, the journal describes, “Parents of autistic children reported less strain, increased parenting competence, and more hope about involving their child in their community.”
Without a doubt, the digital storybook and its materials have been an effective resource in transforming knowledge about developmental disorders. The Sesame Workshop’s goal was to provide a platform of acceptance. Unfortunately, ASAN’s departure has shifted public perception of Julia.
Sesame Street‘s Autistic Muppet, Julia, Stigmatizes Autism — Sources
Autistic Self Advocacy Network: ASAN Has Ended Partnership With Sesame Street
Sage Journal: The impact of the Sesame Street “See Amazing in All Children” initiative
Fast Company: Sesame Street’s autistic muppet, Julia, was a huge success