The newest character on Sesame Street is on the autism spectrum. "Julia" debuted this week in an online story titled "We're Amazing, 1, 2, 3."
The digital story is part of a Sesame Street initiative called "See Amazing in All Children," which aims to take the stigma out of autism.
Julia, a preschooler who is friends with Elmo, is dealing with the developmental disorder. In the story, she is more sensitive to sounds than other kids, sometimes takes longer to answer questions than others on the playground, and "flaps" her hands when she's excited.
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Lori Mele advocates for more acceptance of kids with autism through her work at the Vermont Family Network, a statewide nonprofit which aims to empower and support Vermont families of children with special needs. Mele said she likes how the story spotlights Julia's different behaviors and communication styles.
Julia's mannerisms, Mele said, may offer glimpses for young readers at how children with autism may behave in real life.
"It's long overdue," Mele said of the addition of such a character for a preschool audience. "The more we can really include and embrace differences, I think the better off we're going to be."
Mele's 14-year-old daughter, Bia, is on the autism spectrum and said she also has Asperger's syndrome. The freshman at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg praised the addition of the character.
"It's so important to spread awareness," the student said. "I think it's a sign we're evolving."
Bia Mele said she thinks the extra visibility from Julia could eventually lead to more understanding, and, she hopes, less bullying.
"I think it's going to help people who have [autism] come out and say, 'Look, I have this, no big deal,'" the high schooler told necn. "Now that it's being talked about and people are getting what's going on, it's really relatable. It's more in people's brains. It's more in their life. People become more accepting."
Julia will be included in digital and printed story books featuring Sesame Workshop characters including Elmo and Abby Cadabby, the Associated Press reported.
Stacy Weinberger, the director of early childhood education at Burlington's King Street Center, told necn she believes preschoolers will be able to pick up on the meaning behind Julia.
"Kids are pretty savvy," Weinberger said. "They're very aware of each other's highs and lows, or who's sensitive about something."
Weinberger said parents now may be able to point to Julia as an example in their conversations at home with their children about differences between people.
"It's really essential to have those opportunities for kids to look at other ways, to alter their behavior--to make someone more comfortable," Weinberger said of how the story describes Julia's mannerisms in a way young readers can relate to.
The new initiative will also provide educational tools to teachers and families, toward its goal to "celebrate the uniqueness of each and every child."