'Sesame Street' introduces first autistic character to help raise awareness

In a move meant to reduce the stigma of autism, “Sesame Street Workshop” announced the addition of a new character, Julia, who was been diagnosed with the disorder.

“Children with autism are five times more likely to get bullied,” Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president of U.S. social impact, told PEOPLE. “And with one in 68 children having autism, that’s a lot of bullying. Our goal is to bring forth what all children share in common, not their differences. Children with autism share in the joy of playing and loving, and being friends and being part of a group.”

The program, “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children,” launched Wednesday, the magazine reported, and is meant to reach families with children ages 2 to 5. Creators said that because families of children with autism gravitate more toward digital products, there are accompanying mobile apps and digital story cards intended to help families and caregivers.

According to the report, the app and videos, which took three years to develop, explain what having autism is like from the perspective of a child with autism, in hopes that other children may begin to understand.

“This is what makes our project so unique,” Betancourt told People.com. “When we explain from a child’s point of view that there are certain behaviors, such as slapping their hands or making noises, to express excitement or unhappiness, it helps younger children to understand how to interact with their autistic peers. It makes children more comfortable and therefore more inclusive.”

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In the storybooks, Julia explains to others that although she may play differently than the others, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to play together with them.

“If you’re five years old, and see another kid not making eye contact with you, you may think that child doesn’t want to play with you,” Sherrie Westin, executive vice president of global impacts and philanthropy, told People.com. “But that’s not the case. We want to create greater awareness and empathy.”

“By opening up a dialogue we are trying to get rid of any discomfort or awkwardness, it’s time to increase understanding,” she said.

“We are trying to spread the story about the theory behind this whole thing— love and acceptance,” Betencourt told the magazine. “Everyone is touched by autism, and by creating Julia, ‘Sesame’ is bringing children together.”