Sesame Street puppeteer hopes new Muppet with autism will help kids understand each other
Big Bird and his Sesame Street pals have a new friend.
Her name is Julia, and she's the first character in the show's history who has autism.
Stacey Gordon is the puppeteer and voice behind the four-year-old Muppet with bright red hair, bangs, mustard-yellow skin and a pink outfit. She spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about what Julia brings to the show. Here is part of their conversation.
CO: What do you think children will understand about Julia from watching her as a character?
SG: My hope is that kids will understand some autistic behaviours a little bit better and they won't be at all concerned or worried about them, that they won't be scared of them, that they'll see a child in their own community who might behave like Julia, or have some of the characteristics that Julia has, and they'll see that as just another kid.
And they'll be able to go up to that child and go, "Oh! That kid might be a little bit like Julia, and Abby [another Sesame Street character] plays with Julia and I can play with this kid too."
CO: You've said elsewhere that playing the role of Julia is a good fit for you. Why is that?
SG: I've been in the autism community for probably 16 or 17 years. I used to be a habilitator for kids on the spectrum and the cause had always been close to my heart. And then when I left that job, I had a child who was later diagnosed as on the spectrum as well. It's definitely very important to me.
CO: And what did you learn from having your own child who is on the autism spectrum?
SG: Being an autism parent is a round-the-clock-job. When your child goes to school, you're still on call. I think that knowing what my kid goes through helps me bring a better sense of understanding and authenticity to what I can give to Julia.
CO: What can children take from this episode when it comes to playing with the person in their own class who has autism?
SG: I think that, if anything else, I hope that the kids who watch this episode who are neurotypical, really just understand that the kids who might behave like Julia are just like they are and they might just do things in their own special way.
So in the episode we have Julia and Elmo and Abby all painting. And Elmo and Abby are using their fingers to finger-paint. But Julia doesn't like the feeling of paint in her fingers so she's using a brush. She's doing the same things that they're doing, just in her own Julia way.
CO: How does Julia get along with the other characters of Sesame Street?
SG: We've established that she has a strong connection with Abby and Elmo. She always has a grown-up around that she can turn to if she gets overwhelmed, but she plays with Abby and Elmo and Big Bird and other characters in later episodes, too.
I think that what I really love about seeing Julia progress throughout the season is that we stop calling attention to her autism and we see her as a regular kid.