Sesame Street is debuting their newest friend — a red-headed muppet named Julia. And she has autism.
“She is going to be so powerful on two fronts,” Sherrie Westin, executive vice president of Global Impact and Philanthropy at Sesame Workshop, tells PEOPLE of Julia. “It will help kids with autism be able to identify with a character and it will also play an important role in destigmatizing autism.
“We want to reach all children in terms of giving them greater empathy and to talk about and increase awareness and understanding.”
Julia, who was introduced last year as a digital character in Sesame Workshop’s Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children global initiative for communities and families with children ages 2 to 5, is now making her debut as a physical muppet on HBO and PBS on April 10.
“We just had to bring her to life,” says Westin. “She was created as a positive response from the autism community.”
Julia is “moderately impacted with autism” and has echolalia, or repetitive speech patterns.
“We wanted to make sure Julia had characteristics that were consistent with those on the autism spectrum in such a way that kids could identify with Julia,” she adds. “We worked hard to make sure that kids could identify.”
For nine months, Sesame Workshop creatives sketched Julia and planned her characteristics, working closely with the autism community and 14 major autism organizations for input.
Their biggest challenge? Making sure the character was relatable to all kids.
‘Each child is unique and Julia can’t be identical to to everyone on the spectrum, but we worked hard to make sure she has certain characteristics that people can understand and identify with,” says Westin. “It was important for us to show that just because Julia may not always show it, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to be your friend or to be included.
“The modeling here is to reach kids to give them empathy.”
Julia’s puppeteer is a 38-year-old woman named Stacey Gordon, who has a 13-year-old son on the autism spectrum.
“I just wish Julia was around when my son was younger,” Gordon, who requested her son’s name and photo be kept out of the story, tells PEOPLE. “This is so special for me to be Julia, it’s going to be huge for the autism community.”
Gordon, who performs locally at the Great Arizona Puppet Theater in Phoenix, prepared for her role as Julia by reviewing old tapes of a young woman with autism that she used to babysit and by reflecting on her own experiences as a mother with a child who has autism.
“There are moments in the show where Julia gets overwhelmed by a loud sound and gets bumped when she’s not expecting it and she has a panic attack and covers her ears and cries. Allen takes her out and does deep belly breathing to calm down,” she says. “And in that moment, I had to imagine my son when he was going through all of that and used those moments to bring Julia to life.”
Gordon says using her son as inspiration for the character was “heart-wrenching.”
“Because [I] am constantly reminded of those moments you wish your child had never experienced — like bullying or being left out — and he will probably experience again,” she says. “But at the same time, I’m so grateful that, through this experience as Julia, I can help other children.
“It’s a very rewarding thing to have. His experiences are helping him grow and also helping me grow and Julia grow and hopefully helping other kids grow too.”