For decades, Sesame Street has gone where few other children’s shows have dared, sensitively teaching generations of young viewers about the difficult realities of war, HIV and AIDS, and incarceration. So Sesame Workshop, the long-running program’s production company, was well positioned in 2017 to welcome Julia, a 4-year-old character with autism, to broaden conversations around diversity that parents of many Sesame Street viewers still find so challenging.
Julia’s debut was aired simultaneously on HBO (where Sesame Street now airs), PBS (its longtime home), and YouTube (where the “Meet Julia” episode quickly racked up over 1.5 million views). With 1 in 68 American children on the autism spectrum today, Sesame Workshop expected Julia to resonate—and she has. Around half of American adults have already heard of Julia, and Sesame Workshop’s initial research suggests that the new Muppet is already having a powerful destigmatizing effect for kids and grownups alike.
In 2018, thanks to an enormous grant from the MacArthur Foundation, the organization has partnered with the International Rescue Committee to make a new set of programming for displaced kids in refugee camps in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The programming will teach academic basics, and also the socio-emotional skills they need to thrive, featuring both classic characters and new, regional-specific puppets. The organization is also working with Apple on a slate of children’s programming.