Why It Matters That Sesame Street’s New Character With Autism Is a Girl

Photo: Sesame Street

This post originally ran in October 2015. We are running it again now, with updates throughout, as Julia will make her debut on Sesame Street in April.

In April, Sesame Street will introduce Julia, a new character who has autism. Julia is not exactly a stranger to the neighborhood, having first appeared in a “digital storybook” released in 2015, which itself was enough to get parents excited.

As it turns out, there’s a potentially good reason for that excitement: Julia, as you may have gathered, is a girl. And some researchers who study autism argue that the condition may be underdiagnosed in girls, which could help explain why the disorder is five times more common in boys. The fact that a children’s media empire like Sesame Street made Julia its first autistic character reminds that, of course, girls can have autism, too.

In a piece for Spectrum, a site that covers advances in autism research, psychiatrist Somer Bishop writes that the diagnostic criteria for autism are largely based on studies of autistic boys and that the behaviors simply don’t look the same in little girls with the disorder. The signs may be more subtle, for one, as Bishop found herself in her own clinical practice. She writes:

One 6-year-old girl I met several years ago seemed, at first, to have good social skills. She responded appropriately when I introduced myself, complimented my outfit and politely answered all of my questions. It was only when I saw her again a few days later that I understood her family’s concerns: She made nearly identical overtures, as if our interaction were part of a play she had rehearsed.

Historically, she explains, it’s been thought that girls with autism are less intelligent than boys with autism, but newer research has suggested that this is an outdated mode of thinking. “[B]ecause these studies were conducted during a time when higher-functioning children with autism were less likely to be identified, such studies likely missed girls with high intelligence quotients (IQs) and milder social difficulties — whose autism may have been particularly difficult to detect,” writes Bishop, who is an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

Julia, new Sesame Street character with autism.
Photo: Mary Beth Nelson/Sesame Workshop

Beyond that, doctors and clinicians may be more likely to pick up on things like restricted/repetitive interests — some key signs of autism — in boys. “For example, a 10-year-old girl with autism might bombard a listener with facts about her favorite pop star whereas a boy might rattle off train timetables, and a teen girl with the disorder might obsessively collect makeup rather than old coins,” writes science journalist Sarah DeWeerdt, in a different post for the Spectrum. An obsession with pop stars or makeup is typical of many girls, so clinicians may be less likely to notice when these things may suggest autism.

When creating Julia, the Sesame Street team was careful to heed the advice of families, educators, and autism organizations regarding her look and personality. “That meant that every detail of Julia’s Muppet – from her eyes, which should have an ‘intense look’ but still look friendly, to her clothes, which are free of distracting bows and buttons – was seriously considered,” as my colleagues at Vulture reported. The little Muppet’s existence may make families with autistic children, and especially girls, feel a little more seen and understood; indeed, Stacy Gordon, the puppeteer who plays Julia, has said as much herself. “As the parent of a child with autism, I wished that [Julia] had come out years before, when my own child was at the Sesame Street age,” she said.

Sesame Street’s First Muppet With Autism Is a Girl