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Joseph Scarbrough launched what he called "The Scarblog" as a way of cataloging his work over the years, as well as going into greater detail of things on his mind (known as "Unfinished Thoughts").

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

My Unfinished Thoughts on Julia

Sesame Street's newest resident
SESAME STREET has always managed to pull off Very Special Episodes that address rather heavy, sensitive, or true-to-life subjects in ways that make it easy for its preschool audience to grasp and comprehend. In 1983, they tackled the subject of Mr. Hooper's death after the passing of cast member Will Lee; in 2001, we saw a week-long story arc involving the destruction and rebuilding of Big Bird's nest after a hurricane blows through - which continues to be rebroadcast today in the wake of particularly devastating hurricanes such as Katrina or Sandy; in 2002, Hooper's Store caught fire in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks; and lest we forget the series of TALK, LISTEN, CONNECT and LITTLE CHILDREN, BIG CHALLENGES videos that cover such topics as parents in prison, parents in the military, and food pantries. I had no doubts that the introduction of the street's newest resident would be handled well, and it was. However, Julia's origins can be traced quite a ways back before we got to see her as a full-fledged Muppet on our screens. . . .

Lexi, Julia's ancestor
Several years ago, Sesame fan Alexandra created a fan-character named Lexi, an adorable and playful little Muppet girl who enjoys drawing, singing, dancing, and being a detective much like her hero, Sherlock Hemlock. Lexi also happens to have Asperger's Syndrome, a form of Mild Autism, of which Alexandra also has; taking notice of SESAME STREET's lack of Autism Awareness, she contacted Sesame Workshop about the possibility of incorporating Lexi into the show as an actual Muppet character to help bring more awareness of Autism to the world's most famous street, and to help educate kids more about what Autism is, and how it's dealt with by those who have it, and those who know people who have it, which resulted in the following:

For legal reasons, Lexi could not actually be used in Sesame material, however, after taking initiative, a new character was eventually developed specifically to do just as Alexandra wrote about: to help teach children about Autism and to understand more about it and symptoms they may see in Autistic kids. Enter Julia!

Julia was initially created for exclusive web material, such as the above-linked online storybook, WE'RE AMAZING, 1,2,3! Through the storybook, we learn that Julia likes to do a lot of the same things as her friend Elmo, just a little differently; we also learn that she may not respond to someone right away, and that it helps to repeat yourself a few times. We also see some of the symptoms often associated with Autism, such as Julia's hand flapping when she's excited, or the mild panic attack she has when her sensitive ears hear sounds that bother her. The online storybook and other web material featuring Julia went over well enough that it only made sense that she would eventually become an actual Muppet on the show, and it finally happened:

It's interesting that SESAME STREET hasn't tried doing this before now, considering other children's shows out there have incorporated such characters long ago, with ARTHUR being a good example. ARTHUR has three prominent disabled characters that are featured on the show on a recurring basis: Marina Datillo, an independent blind girl; Lydia Fox, a wheelchair-bound girl who excels at basketball; and Carl Gould, a train aficionado with Asperger's. Each of these characters are depicted in ways that shows that despite having limitations due to their respective disabilities, they are still able to do things for themselves and are not at all helpless - in short, they can pretty much do whatever their friends can, just differently. In fact, when speaking of Julia's Autism, it's explained that she just does things, "In a Julia sort of way." Julia's debut episode aired on both PBS and HBO April 10, 2017, but for the time being, it is available for viewing on YouTube . . . so rather than me typing up a summary, you can just see it for yourself:

There really are no words for me to describe just how precious this episode is. As always, SESAME STREET handled the subject in an easy to understand, yet straight-forward and to-the-point manner that didn't sugar-coat or water-down the subject to the point of making it sappy or maudlin. This is why a show like SESAME STREET continues to be one of the most endearing and enduring children's shows for forty-seven seasons - despite what some naysayers or old, jaded, and cynical fuddy-duddies may say, SESAME STREET never talks down to kids, but presents their specific educational subjects with humor and heart. Through Big Bird, we learn that Julia may do things differently than other people he or we may know, but that doesn't mean that they can't be friends, and it's certainly heartwarming to see that both Big Bird and Julia are able to make new friends with each other. My personal favorite moment from the episode is Julia's case of the giggles as she sees how small Big Bird looks from up on the roof of the community center.

Again, there's really no words I can use to describe the excellent job they did - you just have to see this episode for yourself. I certainly hope that not only will Julia continue to be seen on the street, and be utilized in other ways to show just how capable she is of doing a lot of the same things as her friends, just in her own Julia sort of way, but that this may help pave the way for further Muppets with disabilities to populate the street.

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