The Quiet Strength of Julia, the First Muppet with Autism

Zach Hyman/Sesame Workshop
Zach Hyman/Sesame Workshop / Zach Hyman/Sesame Workshop

On Monday, April 10, viewers of Sesame Street on HBO will get their first glimpse of Julia, an oval-eyed, red-haired 4-year-old who likes finger painting, playing tag, and splashing in puddles. She’s the first new Muppet cast member on the series in nearly a decade, a significant milestone as Sesame enters its 47th season.

Naturally, Big Bird is curious about the new face. He extends a wing in greeting, but Julia doesn’t grab it. She doesn’t look up at him. She continues painting, careful not to get any on her hands. After a siren blares in the background, she grows agitated and wants to get away. Alan, the human adult in the group, explains that sometimes Julia needs questions repeated to her, and that she may do things a little differently than everyone else. Julia has autism.

It might seem simple on paper, but that brief exchange took Sesame Workshop more than three years to research, conceptualize, and execute. In depicting a character with autism, the show has consulted with more than a dozen autism organizations, painstakingly reviewed Julia’s behaviors and dialogue, and enlisted the talents of several crew members who have been personally touched by people with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

If Julia resonates with viewers, it could be the beginning of a radical change in how the general population perceives autism and the reported one in 68 children who are diagnosed with the developmental disorder. The week before her premiere, Julia’s puppeteer, Stacey Gordon, appeared in front of Congress—in character—to help raise awareness of Julia and the challenges faced by children living with ASD and their families.

“There’s no knowing how far and wide this will reach,” Gordon tells mental_floss.

It’s a far cry from just a year ago, when Gordon wasn’t even sure she’d get the job.

In April 2014, Sesame Workshop and advocacy group Autism Speaks announced "See Amazing in All Children," a joint online initiative that seeks to customize learning materials for underrepresented families. Previously, the nonprofit Workshop had set its focus on addressing children who struggle with having incarcerated parents, or divorce, or who worry about having people they love serve in the military.

The goal of See Amazing was autism awareness. “It was in response to the growing number of children diagnosed in the U.S. with autism,” Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop's executive vice president for global impact and philanthropy, tells mental_floss. “That took several years of research, tapping into advisory groups and experts in autism.”

In building awareness, the Workshop hoped to combat negative or misunderstood perceptions among preschoolers who might conceivably encounter a classmate with autism, potentially reducing the likelihood of afflicted children being bullied. While the initial program rollout featured workbooks, activities, and video profiles of real families dealing with autism, Westin and Sesame Workshop saw a need for a character who could embody the disorder and make it relatable in the context of their other, not-quite-human cast members.

Workshop employee Leslie Kimmelman, who has a child with autism, wrote a digital storybook, We’re Amazing, 1, 2, 3!, featuring a character named Julia, who disliked loud noises but was still a friendly, amenable presence. It was and remains a distinctive characterization of autism in the media, which has long struggled to depict those on the spectrum as something other than psychologically distant people who have some form of genius in a specialized field, a trend that started with 1988’s Rain Man.

Because of the positive response from those in the autism community, Julia’s presence kept growing. She appeared in animated shorts online and as a “walkaround,” or costumed character, during live events. The support for her was significant, and substantial enough for the Workshop to plot its most ambitious move: adding Julia to the cast of Sesame Street.

“Ultimately, we decided Julia would reach the most children if she were on the show,” Westin says.

While writers and producers at the Workshop were collaborating with experts in the field of autism research and support, puppeteer Stacey Gordon was in Phoenix, Arizona, wondering where they’d take Julia next. As the parent of a now-13-year-old son with autism, Gordon was thrilled that the disorder was being highlighted.

“Then I found an article saying there were no plans at the time to make her into a Muppet,” Gordon says. “I thought, ‘Well, if they ever do, I really want to be Julia.’ It felt like a pipe dream, though.”

It wasn’t. As a performer and puppet-maker for the Great Arizona Puppet Theater, Gordon knew Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, who portrays Abby Cadabby on the show. When Sesame producers decided to incorporate Julia as a new cast member, Carrara-Rudolph recommended Gordon try out for the part.

“I sent them a video just kind of proving I was a real puppeteer, and then they invited me to audition,” Gordon says. She sent in a second video, and then got a callback to perform live at the show’s set in Queens in early 2016.

“I really thought I would just be going through the motions, because I thought I was too short,” says Gordon, who stands five-foot-two. But with the addition of 6-inch platform shoes and some creative slouching by other cast members, she was able to keep Julia at eye level to the other performers. Two weeks later, Gordon got a call saying she had the job.

“She just instinctively knew how Julia would respond in certain circumstances,” Westin says. “There’s no doubt her experience as the parent of a child with autism added a sensibility to how she would portray her.”

While Gordon was overjoyed at the news, she wasn’t able to share much of it. Julia was a top-secret addition to the show, and it would be over a year before the general public would get a glimpse of her, first on 60 Minutes in March 2017, and then in a series of short online videos. “It feels funny even saying ‘Julia’ now because I couldn’t for the longest time,” Gordon says.

As conceptualized by designer Louis Henry Mitchell and Muppet builder Rollie Krewson, Julia is highly unique—not just in her actions, but in her physical appearance. Unlike most Muppets, her eyes are oval and can be switched out to show more of her eyelids. She also has two sets of arms, including a pair that can “flap” when she gets excited. She holds tightly to a stuffed bunny named Fluffster, a trait that Gordon perceived in her own son’s presentation of autism.

“He had a monkey when he was younger,” Gordon says. “There was always something that we called a fidget in his hands he would play with when he got nervous.” Both Gordon’s son and Julia also have problems processing sensory exposure, with loud noises bringing on agitation.

As research went on, Julia also became slightly less verbal. That seeming aloofness materializes in her first appearance, which allows her friends—including Elmo and Abby—to explain to Big Bird why she behaves a little differently than he might be used to. “Abby overtly says, 'Julia has autism,'” Westin says. “It’s an opportunity to explain that, although she might not show it in the same ways, she still wants to be friends.”

If Julia is embraced by those in the autism community, it will be a significant step forward for a movement that has longed for a character in the media that’s reflective of their experiences. But, as Westin and others have noted, autism can manifest itself in a multitude of ways across key areas of social, communication, and behavioral difficulties. “If you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve seen one child with autism,” Gordon says, echoing a common sentiment in the autism community.

Already, there’s been concern voiced that Julia’s gender might not be representative of the fact that boys are diagnosed with autism five times more often than girls. “There was lots of discussion over her gender,” Westin says. “What we learned is that there’s a big misconception where people don’t think girls can even get autism. We wanted to debunk that myth.”

For others, the fact that Julia’s experiences may be distilled to a handful of traits could lead to a narrow understanding of autism. “She can’t represent everyone,” Gordon says. “My son doesn’t exhibit every trait. No one exhibits every trait.” Instead, Sesame Workshop is hopeful that children will see that regardless of how autism presents itself, compassion, patience, and love are instrumental in helping others cope.

Julia is set to be featured in another prominent role later this season, with several more episodes already shot for next year. Beyond that, Westin and Gordon aren’t sure what the future holds. “I’d love for her to be out there as much as possible,” Westin says.

For Gordon, Julia represents an opportunity for more families to be aware of the signs of autism. Her own son wasn’t diagnosed until age 7, a late intervention that meant insurance didn’t cover a portion of his potential treatment options. In her own quiet way, Julia might be responsible for getting more families to think about early intervention, and for classmates and others to consider how Julia can change their perceptions of what it means to be a person with autism.

“When Julia hears the siren, Big Bird says, ‘I didn’t think it was that loud,’” Gordon says. “And Elmo answers, ‘Well, it was loud to Julia.’ That’s something we can apply to every human being. It shows us we can have compassion for everyone.”

To explore Sesame Workshop’s resources on autism, visit Sesame Street and Autism

All images courtesy of Zach Hyman/Sesame Workshop.