So if Sesame, whose mission is “to help all children grow smarter, stronger and kinder,” were truly interested in representing autism most accurately, wouldn’t its new character be a boy?
That question isn’t lost on Sherrie Westin, Sesame’s executive vice president, global impact and philanthropy. Julia took three years to create, and after consulting extensively with researchers, she was at first surprised that they recommended a girl. But the more she thought about it, the more it made sense to her.
“We made sure she was a girl namely because autism is seen so much more often in boys,” she said. “We wanted to make it clear that girls can be on the spectrum, too. .. We’re trying to eliminate misconceptions, and a lot of people think that only boys have autism.”
“Sesame can be a great convener of different interests,” Westin said. “We were able to bring people at opposite ends of the spectrum, pun intended, from Autism Speaks, to the Autism [sic] Self-Advocacy Network. Those groups see certain things differently, but what they had in common is they wanted to give families and children tools.” Both groups have released statements supporting the initiative.
Besides, Westin said, Sesame isn’t wading into the more controversial aspects of autism, such as its cause. “We don’t pretend that every child who is on the spectrum is the same,” Westin said. Sesame is trying to tackle a fundamental problem: Autistic children are five times as likely to be bullied than their peers.
Ultimately, after working with these groups and experts from such institutions as the Yale Child Study Center, they decided on these characteristics for Julia: She can talk. She cannot make extensive eye contact. And she flaps her arms when she gets excited. “We chose things we thought would be most helpful and most typical,” Westin said. On top of these markers of autism, Julia is very curious and smart.