Day 6

Autistic writer says there's a lot riding on Sesame Street's newest muppet

This week, Sesame Street introduced the world to Julia, its first character with autism. Many people with autism are watching closely to see if the show will get it right. Sarah Kurchak is a journalist in Toronto. She's also autistic, and she says that while Julia isn't perfect, she wishes the muppet had been on television when she was growing up.
(Sesame Workshop)

This week, Sesame Street uploaded a series of new videos to its YouTube page. In one of the videos, the show's newest muppet stands alone and softly hums the theme song to her stuffed toy rabbit. Abby Cadabby, another character, joins her and together they sing and laugh. It's a typical Sesame Street moment moment filled with happiness and acceptance.

Julia is Sesame Street's newest resident.  Like the other muppets, she's cute, colourful and made of felt. She also has autism. And as Sarah Kurchak tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, her role on the seminal kids program could save people like her a lifetime of pain.

"I didn't have a lot of those genuine connections at the most fragile time of my life, and I grew up wrong because of it," she says.

Kurchak prefers to be referred to as autistic rather than as someone with autism. She was diagnosed when she was 27 years old and she says watching this video brought her to tears.

"I was flat-out sobbing alone with my computer," she says. "Part of it is heartbreak because there is a lot of regret for what could have been for me if any of this had been in place in the late '80s and early '90s."

Julia's impact on future generations

Kurchak is a Toronto-based journalist, and she wrote about her reaction to the clips for The Establishment, an online media organization. She says the addition of Julia to the Sesame Street cast will have a big impact on current and future generations of children, both with and without autism.

"You have issues because of your autism, but you also have issues with how people interact with your autism. If we can remove that second layer, there's so much good that can happen," she says.

"This puppet is going to allow kids to grow in a way that I didn't get to and I am so excited for them."

Sesame Street still has work to do

Julia will make her TV debut in April, but the character has been around since October 2015. Her role is part of a larger Sesame Street initiative called See Amazing in All Children. The interactive media program focuses on autism and was nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award.

Kurchak says the addition of Julia has the potential to be great but the representation of autism isn't totally there yet.

The scenes released this week involve other muppets or human adults from Sesame Street and their interaction leads to the other the characters narrating for Julia.


"That's a real sore spot with autistic people because so much of what people talk about when they talk about autism is talking over us," she says. "It's taking too much ownership of what should be communicated by autistic people."

Stacey Gordon is the voice behind Julia.  She's an experienced puppet artist and the mother of a boy with autism. That invariably helps with the mannerisms and patterns of speech.  

Julia has echolalia or repetitive speech patterns. She's also the first new character to arrive on Sesame Street in ten years. Add it all up and there is a lot of pressure to get this character right.

When Kurchak considers the amount of empathy this representation can bring, she says Sesame Street is on the right track.

(Sesame Street Workshop)

"The thing I love [about this this clip] is Abby is approaching Julia on her own terms. It's not about Julia having to change to win Abby's acceptance or tolerance," she says. "They're trying to find something that can connect with together, that will work out for both of them."

Autism in pop culture

Sesame Street is breaking a barrier by introducing a character with autism and as Kurchak says, every piece of art contributes to a cultural shorthand for people to draw on.

"It not only allows you to reconsider how to approach an autistic person in your life," she says, "but it also takes the pressure off autistic people so they're not doing autism 101 every single time they walk into a room."

Kurchak was diagnosed around the time the NBC's Community debuted and says Danny Pudi's portrayal of Abed helped others understand her.

"I was able to say, you know, a little like Abed from Community, even though he was never officially diagnosed, he is what we call 'autistish' which is autistically coded," she says.

Kurchak noticed that people related to her more in a post-Abed world, but pop culture has other influences.

"A lot of autistic people learn their social skills from media. You can study it without having to practice it. Television can't bully you, it can't make fun of you. You can just watch characters interact."

She also says she saw pieces of herself in characters on TV and that bodes well for young people watching Sesame Street.

"When you see yourself in a character and that character is treated well, that's telling you that you have a place in this world and that's something I can't say I really had until I was in my 20s," she says.  

To hear Brent Bambury's conversation with Sarah Kurchak, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.