In The Politics of Autism, I discuss depictions of ASD in popular culture. A couple of years ago, Sesame Workshop introduced an autistic character online. Next month, Julia will be on the television program.
There are not many shows on television that deserve to be called true American institutions – but one of them is surely “Sesame Street.” It’s been on the air now for almost 50 years. When Sesame Street began in 1969, it was considered an experiment. The question: Could television be used to educate young children? Well, research proved the answer to be yes, and the nonprofit children’s television workshop -- now called Sesame Workshop -- that created the show, has been refining and expanding that mission ever since, everything from ABC’s and 123’s, to race, and even death. In a few weeks, Sesame Street -- which now airs on HBO as well as its longtime home on PBS -- will take on its latest challenge: introducing a new kid on the street. A Muppet named Julia, who has autism.
Christine Ferraro [writer]: It’s tricky because autism is not one thing, because it is different for every single person who has autism. There is an expression that goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
“Sesame Street” has always based its characters and content on extensive research. They regularly bring in educators and child psychologists. In the case of Julia, they also worked with autism organizations to decide which characteristics she should have and how best to normalize autism for all children.
And of course every Muppet needs a puppeteer. But not every puppeteer has the connection Stacey Gordon does to the role. Gordon is the mother of a son with autism. She traveled all the way from Phoenix to audition for the part.
Lesley Stahl: The idea that there will be a child with autism on Sesame Street—
Stacey Gordon: Yeah.
Lesley Stahl: Tell me what that means to you.
Stacey Gordon: It means that our kids are important enough to be seen in society. Having Julia on the show and seeing all of the characters treat her with compassion—
Lesley Stahl: And like her.
Stacey Gordon: And like her.
Lesley Stahl: That’s big.
Stacey Gordon: Yeah, it’s huge.