In 2017, Sesame Street introduced a new Muppet named Julia, who is an autistic 4-year-old. She’s since appeared on three seasons of the show. But several new commercials highlight specifically how Julia’s life works a little differently than her puppet peers.
In one spot, Julia flaps her arms and giggles as her dog barks in circles. Her dad notices that she’s unable to communicate what exactly she wants to do, so he encourages her to use her “talker,” an electronic device with various buttons for different subjects and activities. “My dog . . . Play ball” is the message she taps into the device, clearly signaling that she wants to play catch with the puppy.
Like most things on the show, it’s a teaching moment. “With Julia’s autism, using a talker can help her find the words she wants to say,” her dad tells viewers.
In another, Julia wears sound-blocking headphones while playing the triangle in a band with Elmo, who is on drums, and her brother Sam, on clarinet. That’s teaching moment number two. “With Julia’s autism, loud sounds can be too much, but she still loves to make music, ” Sam tells the audience.
As both spots make abundantly clear, Julia may be autistic but she’s living a full life because her family and friends have encouraged her to adapt. The commercials will begin airing nationally this week. They were created pro bono by BBDO as PSA’s for early autism screening—the end of the message redirects to parents to ScreenforAutism.org—in partnership with Autism Speaks, Sesame Workshop, and The Ad Council.
That’s because while at least 1 in 59 children in America are autistic, most parents aren’t testing their children until later in life. “We know that doctors can reliably diagnose it by the time that a child is 18 months old, but research shows that that’s just not happening,” says Heidi Arthur, the chief campaign development officer at Ad Council. “Most kids are being diagnosed between ages 4 and 5, and that age is higher for low income and minority children.”
Ad Council research shows that 66% of parents with kids under the age of 6 don’t screen their children at all. The parents of white kids screen more often than those of African American and Hispanic children. (The rate is 7% and 22% more frequent, respectively.) “The reason that screening is so important is because once you receive that diagnosis, it’s actually the beginning of being able to access early intervention,” says Angela Geiger, the president and CEO of Autism Speaks (while Autism Speaks has a history of controversy, Julia’s portrayal has been well-received). In general, that means gaining access to applied behavioral therapy, and potentially occupational speech or physical therapy, as needed. “Research proves that early intervention can really make a lifetime of difference for kids,” she says.
Sesame Street began tackling this issue in 2015 with the launch of See Amazing in All Children, an online learning resource and books program that first introduced Julia as a character. “Our goal there was to provide additional resources—whether it’s for providers, parents, caregivers, educators—to give that same message of how these everyday moments and interactions demonstrate that Julia is like other children,” says Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president of social impact in the United States. “She has much in common, although there are some differences. How can we all adapt to that as well?”
Betancourt makes clear that Julia represents just one way a person can experience having autism—kids interact differently and require varying degrees of support depending on where they are on the spectrum. But all of their information was developed with a team of researchers, awareness and advocacy groups, and early input from parents with children who were both autistic and not.
Support from all parties was so strong that the organization debuted her as a full-time character on TV three seasons ago. Early tracking shows that parents who have autistic children who engage with the programming and online materials end up feeling less stressed and more outgoing in terms of including their kids in everyday activities and talking about their children’s autism. Given the cultural disparity among those seeking out testing, both the previous campaign and this new one are available in Spanish. “Early diagnosis opens the door to really all [that] the world can provide for children, and the earlier the better,” adds Betancourt.