DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In the coming weeks, the classic children's TV show "Sesame Street" will introduce a new Muppet character on the air for the first time in a decade. Her name is Julia, and she has autism. NPR's David Folkenflik paid a visit to the set of "Sesame Street" to meet Julia and learn more about her role.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: If you watch "Sesame Street," you know Abby Cadabby, an ebullient 3-year-old fairy with wings and wand, a few magical powers she can sometimes control and an abiding sense of wonder. Abby introduces me to her friend Julia.
LESLIE CARRARA-RUDOLPH: (As Abby Cadabby) Julia and I, we play a lot in the garden.
FOLKENFLIK: You do?
CARRARA-RUDOLPH: (As Abby Cadabby) Yeah, we do.
FOLKENFLIK: Julia's a winsome redhead with bright green eyes. She's a bit shy, and she's a bit of an echo of her friend.
CARRARA-RUDOLPH: (As Abby Cadabby) Well, we both like nature and flowers.
STACEY GORDON: (As Julia) Flowers.
CARRARA-RUDOLPH: (As Abby Cadabby) Yeah. You like flowers don't you, Julia?
GORDON: (As Julia) Yeah.
FOLKENFLIK: Abby gently explains the challenges the other Muppets felt.
CARRARA-RUDOLPH: (As Abby Cadabby) Big Bird was a little - at first didn't know why Julia sometimes - you have to repeat things sometimes. When you say hi, she might be looking off somewhere at something magical.
FOLKENFLIK: Julia's the first character introduced on "Sesame Street" since Abby herself arrived a decade ago. And, as we said, Julia has autism. Longtime puppeteer Stacey Gordon plays the role of Julia.
GORDON: There's so many people that have given her what she is. I'm just hoping to bring her the heart.
FOLKENFLIK: Gordon tells me the role is intensely personal. She worked in the past doing therapeutic work for people with autism. And Gordon says her son is on the autism spectrum too.
GORDON: Man, I really wish that kids in my son's class had grown up with a "Sesame Street" that had modeling the behavior of inclusion of characters with autism.
FOLKENFLIK: Jeanette Betancourt has been helping plot the development of Julia for about three years. She is the senior vice president for U.S. social impact at Sesame Workshop.
JEANETTE BETANCOURT: Basically, in terms of vulnerable families, we're looking at families who may have particular stressors in their lives that are impacting their young children, whether it's economic or social-emotional stresses or differences that they're handling at the time.
FOLKENFLIK: Betancourt pointed to Sesame's materials for families with a parent in prison, for families where a parent is deployed in the military and now for autism. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimate that 1 in 68 children has some form of autism. Sesame decided on a twofold mission, to give children with autism and their families someone to identify with and those that don't a window into their world. Sherrie Westin is an executive vice president at Sesame Workshop who oversaw an initiative in which the character Julia first appeared in books and online materials.
SHERRIE WESTIN: She was in our storybooks. But we realized if we brought her to life appearing in "Sesame Street" on-air as well, she would have even more impact, be able to reach even more children.
FOLKENFLIK: The campaign is called See Amazing in all Children.
WESTIN: One of my favorite stories is a mother who said that she used the book to explain to her child that she had autism like Julia. Wow - the fact that this became the tool for her to have the conversation with her 5-year-old daughter - and you'll love this - at the end, her daughter said, so I'm amazing, too, right?
FOLKENFLIK: The character herself is set to appear in two episodes in the current season and more the next. Rose Jochum is director of internal initiatives at the Autism Society of America, the nation's oldest advocacy group for people with the disorder.
ROSE JOCHUM: The character Julia, you know, she has wonderful drawing skills. And so, you know, she's, like, a little budding artist. And you see that, you know, autism brings wonderful gifts.
FOLKENFLIK: The society was one of 14 such autism groups that Sesame consulted. They often differ on how the disorder should be treated or addressed in public policy, but Jochum says they found common ground around Julia.
JOCHUM: She's one of the kids. She's part of the gang. It's really meaningful. It's wonderful.
FOLKENFLIK: Julia will make her debut on the air on "Sesame Street" on April 10 on HBO, PBS Kids and YouTube.
CARRARA-RUDOLPH: (As Abby Cadabby) See you.
FOLKENFLIK: See you guys.
CARRARA-RUDOLPH: (As Abby Cadabby) Julia, let's go play.
FOLKENFLIK: David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN YOU TELL ME HOW TO GET TO SESAME STREET")
THE KIDS: (Singing) Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?
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