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New Sesame Street character raises questions on autism representation

By Marissa Stipek, Opinion Editor

Earlier this month, Sesame Street introduced its newest character - Julia, a girl who happens to have autism spectrum disorder.

Julia is a friend of Elmo's, and she likes to play with many of the same toys he does. While Elmo builds with blocks, Julia lines them up. While Elmo drives cars across the floor, Julia spins the wheels around and around.

In the story, Elmo's friend Abby meets Julia. She is confused why Julia won't talk to her or look her in the eye, and assumes Julia doesn't like her.

Elmo explains Julia has autism, and therefore acts a little differently. He says sometimes Julia repeats her words, pauses for long periods of time before speaking and gets bothered by loud noises. Once Abby understands Julia's behaviors, the three are able to play together and have fun.

Julia is part of Sesame Street's broader initiative, Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children. The web-based program includes an online storybook, videos, songs and tips for those whose lives are touched by autism.

Sections like "Preparing for Outings," or "Taking Care of the Caretaker" cater more toward parents, while features like "Being A Friend" give children tips on how to be patient, inclusive and understanding when interacting with those who may be different from them.

Then there is "The Amazing Song," with lyrics like "Every kid is an original, we're all one of a kind/There's no one else quite like us that you're ever gonna find," to teach kids to celebrate diversity.

Sesame Street and the autism initiative have also launched the hashtag "#SeeAmazing" as a way to show support for the autism community.

The goal of the campaign is to reduce stigma around the disorder, and make bullying less of an issue.

Sesame Street, which first aired in 1969, has earned a reputation for promoting education among pre-school-aged children. Throughout its 46 years, Sesame Street has used research to design its content, which includes fostering cognitive development and teaching social skills.

What better social issue to focus on than autism? According to the Autism Society, one in 68 children in the United States are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Virtually everyone knows or knows of someone - a family member, friend, neighbor or classmate who has some form of autism.

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According to the campaign, "While the diagnosis is common, public understanding of autism is not." Sesame Street wants to change that.

However, because autism exists on a spectrum, some cases are more or less severe than others and each case is undoubtedly unique. Is it fair to portray such a complex condition with one simple, singular representation? Can a handful of stereotypical behaviors really depict the struggles and triumphs of a child living with autism? Does Julia truly teach the lessons she is intended to?

While the decision to include Julia is overall a good one, Sesame Street needs to tread carefully. One wrong word, action or story line could be devastating. Sesame Street needs to ensure they are accurately representing individuals with autism, in a way that will make characteristics of the disorder recognizable to children in real life, but that will not be a tasteless over-exaggeration.

According to The New York Times, Sesame Street based Julia's character on years of research, and they debuted her online first, as a way to gauge response from the community. If they get positive feedback, maybe one day Julia will appear on our television screens, as well.