How to interact with autistic child? Look to Sesame Street's Julia

By Ryan Breslin, Spectrum News / Central North Carolina
Last Updated: Friday, April 21, 2017, 4:17 PM EDT

Sesame Street's new character with autism, Julia, came to life with the help of a University of North Carolina professor.

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Laura Klinger is the executive director of a program at UNC called TEACCH that provides community-based services for those affected by autism. She said assisting the show has been a five-year process.

Sesame Street representatives got her and other advisers together in 2012. Their original plan was to create online resources for families. Now, Julia is on the family show.

"They really relied on us early on to give ideas, and then since, then they've really moved forward and gained in their own understanding of autism. And they're not really sending us the scripts any longer, but in the early days, they were having us look at every piece of material they were putting together," Klinger said.

Klinger said Julia is somewhere in the middle of the autism spectrum. The son of the woman who controls Julia has autism, she said.

"They've worked so hard to have the struggles that Julia faces be clear on the show," Klinger said. "She has language, but she doesn't have a lot of conversational language. She's interested in other people, but she doesn't really quite know how to play with the other characters on the show."

David Laxton with the Autism Society of North Carolina applauds the work of Sesame Street.

"It's not only helping the viewers understand what's going on, but it's also helping the viewers understand how to interact with their peers who happen to have autism," Laxton said.

That's what Seanya Rains, a mother to a 6-year-old son with high-functioning autism, appreciates.

Speaking to her son about what he thought of Julia, he asked her, "Is she going to help people understand me?"

"I explained yes, she represents children who are autistic, and she's educating those who don't know," Rains replied. She said he liked that idea.

Klinger said that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 8-year-olds has a diagnosis of autism. Three of four diagnoses are boys, but "the choice to raise awareness that girls can have autism is very important," Klinger said.

April is National Autism Awareness Month.