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'Sesame Street' Muppet with autism, Julia, gets a family

... and a doggy, too!
/ Source: TODAY

For April's Autism Awareness Month, Sesame Workshop is introducing something new and important for Julia, the 4-year-old "Sesame Street" Muppet with autism: a family.

Now, "Sesame Street" fans can meet Julia's parents, a 7-year-old, soccer-loving older brother named Samuel, and her companion dog Rose in a series of new videos and materials on the show's website.

Julia will also be the focus of "Sesame Street's" April 8 episode, in which Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and Alan help Julia overcome her fear of getting a haircut by playing "hair salon" with her. Though a haircut can be intimidating for any child, the episode highlights some specific coping strategies a child with autism might use in that situation.

Sesame Street
This month, Sesame Street is introducing parents, 7-year-old brother Samuel, and companion dog Rose to the story for 4-year-old Julia, a muppet with autism.Photo by RICHARD TERMINE

"We hope to show the challenges — but also all the similarities — that a family like Julia's faces in everyday life," educational therapist Dr. Jeannette Betancourt told TODAY Parents. Betancourt has worked with Sesame Workshop — the nonprofit behind "Sesame Street" — for over 20 years. She is the senior vice president of social impact for the organization, including its Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children initiative, and helped create Julia and her family.

"It was amazing to see Julia come to life, and as we started to delve into hearing more from the autism and neurotypical communities about how to expand her experiences, we received requests to see Julia placed in a situation within a family,"she explained.

Sesame Workshop relies on a cadre of advisors from across the field of autism as well as feedback from parents when developing their characters, concepts and scripts, Betancourt said. Julia's haircut storyline, for instance, came directly from suggestions from audience members at a panel presentation Betancourt made at the National Institutes of Health.

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Julia was first introduced to Sesame Street in digital form in 2015, but she became an official part of the show in April of 2017. Since then, Sesame Workshop has used her to help spread autism awareness across the globe. Julia is now the face of a diversity and inclusion curriculum taught in Japanese public schools, and Sesame Workshop will participate in the World Autism Awareness Day Symposium and join the Tokyo Tower lighting ceremony this year.

In addition to the Sesame Workshop resources online and the Sesame Street storylines, Julia is now a walk-around interactive character at theme parks such as Sesame Place and Busch Gardens Tampa and at Beaches Resorts in the Caribbean.

Eileen Shaklee, who has a 14-year-old son with autism and writes about the experiences of autism parenting at her blog "Autism with a Side of Fries," says Julia and her new family members will make an positive impact for the autism community.

"I think it’s invaluable to both the families that have autism in their lives and those who do not," Shaklee said. "Just seeing a family like their own will mean so much to both children on the spectrum and their neurotypical siblings."

"The more exposure to autism they have, the more inclusive the general public will be!" she added.