Welcome Julia! Julia is Sesame Street’s new autistic character, and she will be making her debut in April, which is Autism Awareness Month, to seemingly universal approval from both parents and experts. Scott Badesch, president and CEO of the Autism Society of America, says that “they got it right.” Badesch, whose son has autism, was one of a number of people consulted by the show. “When you can have a character that shows what autism is, it will help everyone who watches Sesame Street have a really good appreciation of what autism is, in a positive way,” Badesch told USA Today.
Many people have pointed out that the show realistically presents Julia’s difficulties (she gets upset upon hearing loud noises and has trouble engaging with other characters) as well as her strengths (she is a good artist). But if the aim were to present viewers with a typical autistic kid, why did they choose to make the character a girl?
Boys, after all, are between four and five times more likely to be diagnosed with autism as girls are. Scientists are not entirely certain why this is the case. Some speculate that the causes might be genetic. Marjorie Solomon, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of California Davis MIND Institute explained, “The basic thought is that girls have less vasopressin and higher natural oxytocin . . . And oxytocin is a social hormone, so that would be protective.” Vasopressin in animals is linked to aggressive defense of territory and mates.
Regardless, if you were going to present children with the autistic kid they are most likely to encounter, it would be a boy. Even the puppeteer who plays Julia has a son who is autistic. It’s not that there are no girls who suffer from autism, of course, but being “on the spectrum” is a burden that is borne most heavily by boys in our society.
Indeed, the fact that most autistic kids are boys probably makes it more difficult for mostly female teachers and even other kids to relate to them. Who wants a scary antisocial boy to be their friend? Those stories about classmates not showing up when an autistic kid invites them to a birthday party? Those are stories about boys.
But an anti-social girl? She might seem more approachable. In school settings especially, many parents and teachers have bought into the notion that boys are more antisocial and potentially violent (when in many cases, of course, it is that schools simply expect boys to behave like girls—sitting still for long periods of time, developing fine motor skills early, and socializing easily). It might have been harder to create a sympathetic male autistic character for Sesame Street, but it would certainly have been worth it.
There are those who think that autism is underdiagnosed in girls and that its symptoms may look slightly different in girls than boys. Writing in New York Magazine a couple of years ago when Julia’s creation was first announced, Melissa Dahl gushed, “The little Muppet’s existence may make families with autistic children, and especially girls, feel a little more seen and understood.” But Sesame Street’s goal was presumably not to increase the diagnoses of autism among girls but to make kids with autism feel like they are represented and to make other kids recognize that autistic kids should be accepted and not ostracized or feared.
Sesame Street has long had an appealing way of introducing children to difficult subjects without making them scary—death, for instance—but also giving them tools to understand and relate to people who are different from themselves. The show went to great lengths over the past couple of years to make sure that their depiction of autism was as accurate and compassionate as possible. Unfortunately, it seems, they were just a bit off the mark.