A Muppet with autism to be welcomed soon on ‘Sesame Street’

Julia, a new autistic muppet character debuting on the 47th Season of "Sesame Street" on both PBS and HBO. (Zach Hyman/Sesame Workshop via AP)
Updated 20 March 2017
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A Muppet with autism to be welcomed soon on ‘Sesame Street’

NEW YORK: Folks on Sesame Street have a way of making everyone feel accepted.
That certainly goes for Julia, a Muppet youngster with blazing red hair, bright green eyes — and autism. Rather than being treated like an outsider, which too often is the plight of kids on the spectrum, Julia is one of the gang.
Look: On this friendliest of streets (actually Studio J at New York’s Kaufman Astoria Studios, where “Sesame Street” lives) Julia is about to play a game with Oscar, Abby and Grover. In this scene being taped for airing next season, these Muppet chums have been challenged to spot objects shaped like squares or circles or triangles.
“You’re lucky,” says Abby to Grover. “You have Julia on your team, and she is really good at finding shapes!“
With that, they skedaddle, an exit that calls for the six Muppeteers squatted out of sight below them to scramble accordingly. Joining her pals, Julia (performed by Stacey Gordon) takes off hunting.
For more than a year, Julia has existed in print and digital illustrations as the centerpiece of a multifaceted initiative by Sesame Workshop called “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.”
She has been the subject of a storybook released along with videos, e-books, an app and website. The goal is to promote a better understanding of what the Autism Speaks advocacy group describes as “a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.”
But now Julia has been brought to life in fine Muppet fettle. She makes her TV debut on “Sesame Street” in the “Meet Julia” episode airing April 10 on both PBS and HBO. Additional videos featuring Julia will be available online.
Developing Julia and all the other components of this campaign has required years of consultation with organizations, experts and families within the autism community, according to Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president of US Social Impact.
“In the US, one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder,” she says. “We wanted to promote a better understanding and reduce the stigma often found around these children. We’re modeling the way both children and adults can look at autism from a strength-based perspective: finding things that all children share.”
Julia is at the heart of this effort. But while she represents the full range of children on the spectrum, she isn’t meant to typify each one of them: “Just as we look at all children as being unique, we should do the same thing when we’re looking at children with autism,” Betancourt says.
It was with keen interest that Stacey Gordon first learned of Julia more than a year ago. “I said, ‘If she’s ever a puppet, I want to BE Julia!’“
No wonder. Gordon is a Phoenix-based puppeteer who performs, conducts classes and workshops, and creates whimsical puppets for sale to the public.
She also has a son with autism, and, before she started her family, was a therapist to youngsters on the spectrum.
Although she figured her chances of landing the dream role of Julia were nil, her contacts in the puppet world paid off: Two friends who worked as Muppeteers on “Sesame Street” dropped her name to the producers. After submitting tapes, then coming to New York for an audition, she was hired.
In the introductory segment, Julia is having fun with Abby and Elmo when Big Bird walks up. He wants to be her new friend, but she doesn’t speak to him. He thinks she doesn’t like him.
“She does things just a little differently, in a Julia sort of way,” Abby informs him.
Julia, chuckling, then displays a different-but-fun way of playing tag, and everyone joins in. But when a siren wails, she covers her ears and looks stricken.
“She needs to take a break,” Big Bird’s human friend Alan calmly explains. Soon, all is well and play resumes.
“The ‘Meet Julia’ episode is something that I wish my son’s friends had been able to see when they were small,” says Gordon. “I remember him having meltdowns and his classmates not understanding how to react.”
Gordon says her son, now 13, isn’t drawn to puppetry. “He’s more interested in math and science, and plays the piano brilliantly,” she says with pride.
But she’s having a blast being part of the show that helped hook her, as a child, on puppeteering.
“It is so much fun to be on set with everyone, and get to play up all the positive things I’ve seen with the kids that I’ve worked with,” Gordon says. “At the same time, I come at this with a reverence. I don’t want to let the autism community down.”


7D News looks to add new dimension to Middle East affairs

Updated 24 April 2018
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7D News looks to add new dimension to Middle East affairs

LONDON: Do you have a camel at home? Is there an oil wheel in your garden? These are some of the least-informed questions that Dr. Ali Rashid Al-Nuaimi, editor-in-chief of the new media platform 7D News, has encountered on visits to the West.
Al-Nuaimi, a UAE national and member of the Executive Council of Abu Dhabi, said he spotted a gap in the online media market for an outlet “that is a force for good, not just reportage.”
This begins with unpicking stereotypes about the Middle East, Al-Nuaimi said during an interview at the 7D News launch party in London on Thursday.
“What people here in the West know about the Arab world is terrorism, wars, discrimination against women … we want to change it,” he said.
Serving up daily news blasts complemented by background pieces that aim to show “the stories behind the headlines,” as the news service’s slogan reads, the site plans to provide a fresh perspective on the region, beginning with coverage showcasing the “achievements of the UAE.”
Al-Nuaimi said that the London-based news site — which is owned by Emirates Media and Research — was initially envisioned as an Arabic platform.
But Al-Nuaimi decided that English had a more international reach, and said the site will be completely impartial. “There won’t be any no-go areas,” he said.
Basing the site out of London, with reporters in cities around the world, he hopes to have a global impact by targeting an “elite audience” of readers and viewers with the scope to “impact their community.”
This means politicians, public figures, community leaders — those in a position to make a difference, Al-Nuaimi said. Issues including tolerance, integration, extremism and peace-building will be high on the agenda, with a focus on spotlighting leaders contributing to their community.
“I came from a background where I saw the added value of media in countering extremism,” he said.
“We want to look into news, incidents, events with angles that bring people together (rather than) dividing them, bridging the gaps between different cultures, different religions. I think this is a vacuum that needs to be filled.”
Humaira Patel, a reporter who recently joined the 7D team said the platform will feature “news that brings out the best.”
“I think 7D will be different,” she said.