WASHINGTON • Sesame Street has often experimented with new ways of teaching children about social issues as well as their ABCs since its launch nearly 50 years ago.
It is taking on a new challenge: autism. The ground-breaking public television children's programme is introducing a new character, a muppet named Julia who has autism, the show's creators revealed on the CBS News show 60 Minutes broadcast on Sunday.
Diagnoses of autism have risen steadily in recent years to the rate of one in every 68 American children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But tackling the topic for children was far from straightforward.
Sesame Street writer Christine Ferraro told 60 Minutes: "The big discussion right at the start was, 'How do we do this? How do we talk about autism?'
"It's tricky because autism is not one thing, because it is different for every single person who has autism."
The episode introducing Julia includes some common scenarios. When Big Bird is introduced to her, she ignores him. And when a group of children decide to play tag together, Julia becomes so excited, she starts jumping up and down.
"That's a thing that can be typical of some kids with autism," said Ms Ferraro. But the situation turns into a new game in which all the children jump around with Julia. "So it was a very easy way to show that with a very slight accommodation, they can meet her where she is."
As for other characters, the show conducted extensive research, including consultations with educators and child psychologists and, in this case, autism organisations, to understand how best to normalise autism for non-autistic children.
Julia's puppeteer, Ms Stacey Gordon, happens to be the mother of an autistic son.
"It's important for kids without autism to see what autism can look like," she told 60 Minutes.
"Had my son's friends been exposed to his behaviours through something that they had seen on TV before they experienced them in the classroom, they might not have been frightened."