NEW YORK - Folks on Sesame Street have a way of making everyone feel accepted.
That certainly goes for Julia, a Muppet youngster with blazing red hair, bright green eyes -- and autism. Rather than being treated like an outsider, which too often is the plight of kids on the spectrum, Julia is one of the gang.
Look: On this friendliest of streets (actually Studio J at New York's Kaufman Astoria Studios, where Sesame Street lives) Julia is about to play a game with Oscar, Abby and Grover. In this scene being taped for airing next season, these Muppet chums have been challenged to spot objects shaped like squares or circles or triangles.
"You're lucky," says Abby to Grover. "You have Julia on your team, and she is really good at finding shapes!"
With that, they skedaddle, an exit that calls for the six Muppeteers squatted out of sight below them to scramble accordingly. Joining her pals, Julia (performed by Stacey Gordon) takes off hunting.
For more than a year, Julia has existed in print and digital illustrations as the centerpiece of a multifaceted initiative by Sesame Workshop called Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.
She has been the subject of a storybook released along with videos, e-books, an app and website. The goal is to promote a better understanding of what the Autism Speaks advocacy group describes as "a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences."
But now Julia has been brought to life in fine Muppet fettle. She makes her TV debut on Sesame Street in the Meet Julia episode airing April 10 on both PBS and HBO. Additional videos featuring Julia will be available online.
Years of consultation
Developing Julia and all the other components of this campaign has required years of consultation with organizations, experts and families within the autism community, according to Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop's senior vice president of U.S. Social Impact.
"In the U.S., one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder," she says. "We wanted to promote a better understanding and reduce the stigma often found around these children. We're modeling the way both children and adults can look at autism from a strength-based perspective: finding things that all children share."
Julia is at the heart of this effort. But while she represents the full range of children on the spectrum, she isn't meant to typify each one of them: "Just as we look at all children as being unique, we should do the same thing when we're looking at children with autism," Betancourt says.
It was with keen interest that Stacey Gordon first learned of Julia more than a year ago. "I said, 'If she's ever a puppet, I want to BE Julia!' "
No wonder. Gordon is a Phoenix-based puppeteer who performs, conducts classes and workshops, and creates whimsical puppets for sale to the public.
She also has a son with autism, and, before she started her family, was a therapist to youngsters on the spectrum.
Although she figured her chances of landing the dream role of Julia were nil, her contacts in the puppet world paid off: Two friends who worked as Muppeteers on Sesame Street dropped her name to the producers. After submitting tapes, then coming to New York for an audition, she was hired.
In the introductory segment, Julia is having fun with Abby and Elmo when Big Bird walks up. He wants to be her new friend, but she doesn't speak to him. He thinks she doesn't like him.
"She does things just a little differently, in a Julia sort of way," Abby informs him.
Julia, chuckling, then displays a different-but-fun way of playing tag, and everyone joins in. But when a siren wails, she covers her ears and looks stricken.
"She needs to take a break," Big Bird's human friend Alan calmly explains. Soon, all is well and play resumes.
"The Meet Julia episode is something that I wish my son's friends had been able to see when they were small," says Gordon. "I remember him having meltdowns and his classmates not understanding how to react."
Gordon says her son, now 13, isn't drawn to puppetry. "He's more interested in math and science, and plays the piano brilliantly," she says with pride.
But she's having a blast being part of the show that helped hook her, as a child, on puppeteering.
"It is so much fun to be on set with everyone, and get to play up all the positive things I've seen with the kids that I've worked with," Gordon says. "At the same time, I come at this with a reverence. I don't want to let the autism community down."