At my house, we live and breathe Sesame Street, as evidenced by this little snapshot of what’s in our DVR.


(Hey, I love Scandal too. Don’t judge.)

I truly believe that Sesame Street is one of the main reasons that our 3-year-old is an early reader, tearing through full Dr. Seuss books like a 9-year-old. I also truly believe – this is an even bigger leap of faith – that our 6-year-old non-verbal autistic son loves Sesame Street. When we put on other shows, he tolerates it, but he seems calmer when it’s Sesame Street. We watch it every darn day, and I’m oddly not as sick of it as I am most other children’s programming.

So you can imagine that I was thrilled with the big announcement that Sesame Street has introduced its first character with autism, a muppet named Julia.

julia muppet

I suspect I know why they started her presence online – probably so that she can have some defenders before the first time she actually flaps her arms on the TV show. If you’d like to see her introduction, go to this link and click “Storybook” and prepare yourself for a very sweet story. My 3-year-old can read the whole thing by himself without the narrator. My 6-year-old tunes it out and pushes it away, with or without narration.

Here’s the thing: just as one does not simply walk into Mordor, one does not simply introduce new characters on Sesame Street the way that, say, Downton Abbey puts new wait staff in the kitchen. The show takes its educational mission very seriously and does serious research before a new character comes on board. As I said, Julia has yet to even make an appearance on the show, but with my special blogger powers I can already see a future of complaints about her, and as the father of a severely autistic kid, I just want to humbly address the concerns in advance.

Julia doesn’t get enough screen time. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s most-paraphrased phrase, some are born star muppets, some achieve muppet stardom, and some have muppet stardom thrust upon them. But Sesame Street eventually gravitates to the first and second category. They introduced Zoe as their much-fanfared featured female years before they introduced Abby, but Abby has taken over, as I exhaustively detailed here, and it’s not like it’s anyone’s fault. Kids respond to a certain star quality, and that’s one reason Abby and Elmo were chosen to introduce us to Julia. Sure, Julia isn’t going to appear on every single skit or every time the gang gets together to sing the letter of the day or the number of the day. If you look carefully enough you’ll see plenty of other “missing” major muppets on each grouping of ten or so. We shouldn’t start accusing Sesame Street, the original progenitor of rainbow-style inclusion, of insufficient attention or too-few token gestures regarding any one of its characters.

There’s also the thornier problem that a faithful representation of most forms of autism doesn’t lend itself to the “roundness” of many of the lead characters. The flat/round distinction, if you’ve never heard it, is like redshirt/recurring; a “flat” character is one-note, while a “round” character gets goals and lessons and comeuppances. But if Sesame Street were to have Julia learn things, that would be its own problematic representation of autism. Many autistic kids don’t and can’t learn lessons in the 10-minute-skit time of your average Sesame Street opener. One reason I feel that Best Picture Oscar winner Rain Man (1988) holds up reasonably well is that Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) isn’t the character who changes; Charlie (Tom Cruise) is. Had they permitted Raymond a miracle recovery, that would come with its own problems for families dealing with autism. Ditto with Julia.

Julia’s autism is too easily integrated with the other kids; they should show a more severe case. I get this, because of my kid’s own challenges. But I don’t think it’s fair. It’s a wide spectrum, and what we’re seeing is enough to raise awareness. Watching Julia with the other muppets and characters, neurotypical kids are getting the message to accept the mentally challenged. Correct me if you can with research to the contrary, but I don’t think kids need exposure to every single kind of disability to activate empathy; I think empathy for one sort of disabled person translates to a lot of other kinds of disability. That’s also why it’s fine that Julia is a girl, even if autism is something like 5-to-1 male-to-female. (Secret reasoning: Sesame Street has been stocking up on girl muppets lately to try to address the still-awkward gender imbalance, giving fuller roles in the last two years to Seggy and Penelope Penguin, and that’s fine.)

Where’s a regular character with Down’s? Or cerebral palsy? Or ALS? Or something else? The truth is, Sesame Street has had humans in wheelchairs in skits since the 70s, at least 35 years before Artie became just one of the ensemble on Glee. But mostly, it’s the same as I just said above – the show can increase empathy even without checking every single demographic box. (If that’s easy for me to say because I have a kid with autism, well so be it.)

Bottom line, Sesame Street gets a very long leash on this one. Let’s not kvetch about every tiny little thing just because Julia may not exactly represent every possible problem – or solution. The show has earned our long-term trust, and it’s helping parents and kids once again. Anyone who says different, please direct them right here. I can tell them how to get, how to get Sesame Street.