“Sesame Street” Joins Growing List of Shows with Autistic Characters

By Peter Bochner

Sesame Street has become the latest television show to introduce a character with autism.

A muppet character named Julia is now part of Sesame Street Workshop‘s new online initiative, called Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.

The storyline involving Julia, aimed at families with children ages 2 to 5, aims to reduce the stigma of autism by “bringing forth what all children share in common, not their differences,” said Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president of U.S. social impact at Sesame Workshop

“Children with autism share in the joy of playing and loving and being friends and being part of a group,” Betancourt said. When we explain from a child’s POV that there are certain behaviors, such as slapping their hands or making noises, to express excitement or unhappiness, it helps younger children to understand how to interact with their autistic peers.”

The online initiative includes a free downloadable app that incorporates videos, digital story cards and virtual storybooks designed to make everyday stressful situations such as going to bed, brushing teeth and crossing the street easier for families of children with autism, as well as caregivers. “Families with autistic children tend to gravitate toward digital content,” said Sherrie Westin, executive vice president of global impacts and philanthropy at Sesame Workshop.


Sesame Street's autistic character "Julia", by Marybeth Nelson

Sesame Street’s autistic character “Julia”, by Marybeth Nelson


In the storybooks, Julia explains to her Sesame Street friends how she likes to play differently from them. “If you’re five years old, and see another kid not making eye contact with you, you may think that child doesn’t want to play with you,” says Westin. “But that’s not the case.”

On the Sesame Street website, Leslie Kimmerman, the story’s author, writes, “More than 20 years ago, my beautiful son received the diagnosis of autism, and my world changed instantly and profoundly. I knew nothing about autism, and it seemed that those around me — even the professionals — didn’t know much either. Today, happily, that has changed.”

More and more television programs feature characters with characteristics stereotypical of autism spectrum disorders.

Perhaps the best-known autistic character is Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory. It is strongly hinted that he suffers from this disorder due to his many symptoms, such as social awkwardness, compulsive rituals, and rigidity against many changes in his life. Other autistic television characters include Gary Bell on the SyFy series Alphas; Dr. House, from the series of the same name; Jake Bohn, the main character on the FOX show Touch; Detective Sonya Cross on The Bridge; Temperance “Bones” Brennan and Zach from Bones; the recurring character on the show Boston Legal, Jerry Espensen, who was nicknamed “Hands” due to his lack of hand gestures and frequently resting them on his body as his walks; Dr. Eugene Porter from AMC’s The Walking Dead; Dr. Maura Isles from Rizzoli and Isles; the autistic physician Rebecca Blithely of Strange Empire; and Tommy Westphall, the autistic son of Dr. Westphall on the 1982-1988 show St. Elsewhere.

Television characters with Asperger’s include the journalist Abed Nadir from the show Community; Virginia Dixon, a visiting doctor on Season 5 of Grey’s Anatomy; the parallel universe version of Astrid Farnsworth on Fringe; Bob Melnikov from ReGenesis; Max Braverman, on Parenthood, is first a child and then a teenager with Asperger’s; and Sugar Motta from Glee, although the character is regarded as a highly offensive stereotype by the autistic community.

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Peter Bochner is a writer and editor for subjects related to information technology and medicine. He has worked on such publications as Computerworld, Asian Sources and the Journal of Alzheimers Disease, served as editor for several TechTarget websites, and has written for several high-tech research firms. In addition, he served as editor for the recently published book Aspertools: The Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorder and Neurodiversity, by Harold S. Reitman, M.D.