Sesame Street’s New Autistic Character Could Be Groundbreaking

From left, actress Holly Robinson Peete, and Sesame Street character Abby Cadabby introduce the newest Sesame Street muppet Julia, a muppet with autism. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

At Vox, Dylan Matthews reflects on growing up with autism and reviews Sesame Street’s approach to raising awareness in its first episode featuring Julia, a new muppet who has autism.

Sesame Street doesn’t focus on Julia navigating her world, but rather on on Elmo and Abby Cadabby—a neurotypical monster and fairy, respectively—who help Big Bird understand why Julia plays and acts the way she does. Elmo and Abby revel in Julia’s style of play and in doing so, encourage Big Bird to join in the fun. Matthews posits that with Sesame Street’s clout among the young, and the research to back up the fact that the show “encourages prosocial, cooperative behavior among children,” Julia could have a real influence on how society embraces those with autism in the future.

And for children, it requires taking steps to deter bullying and encourage neurotypical children to accept and not ostracize autistic kids. The great thing about that message is that it’s a perfect fit for the overall Sesame Street ethos: that we all belong in the same neighborhood, that we can all get along and play together, that our differences should in no way inhibit our ability to act as a community. Sesame Street has never been about pity or pathologizing differences. It’s always been about inclusion.

“She’s not like any friend I’ve ever had before,” Big Bird tells the gang. “Yeah, but none of us are exactly the same,” Elmo responds.

“You’re a bird, Elmo’s a monster, and I’m a fairy,” Abby concurs. “We’re all different.” They end the segment with a rousing rendition of “We Can All Be Friends.”

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