A new character is joining Elmo, Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird on Sesame Street – her name is Julia and she is the first muppet with autism.

Julia, a little girl with bright orange hair, green eyes and a toy rabbit, will appear for the first time on the much-loved children’s TV show next month.

The character was introduced a year ago in print and digital illustrations as part of a campaign to remove stigma around autism, which affects one in 68 children in the US.

“It’s tricky, because autism is not one thing. It’s different for every single person who has autism,” Christine Ferraro, a writer for the show, told CBS News.

Ms Ferraro said she hoped Julia could help children so when they encounter people with autism in real life, “it’s familiar, and they see they can be their friends too.”

Rather than being treated like an outsider, which too often is the plight of kids on the spectrum, Julia is one of the gang.

In one scene, she plays a game with Oscar, Abby and Grover in which they have been challenged to spot objects shaped like squares or circles or triangles. 

“You're lucky,” says Abby to Grover. “You have Julia on your team, and she is really good at finding shapes!”

Stacey Gordon, Julia’s puppeteer, has a son with autism and was previously a therapist to children on the spectrum. She called the creation of an autistic muppet “huge”.

In an introductory segment, Julia is having fun with Abby and Elmo when Big Bird walks up. He wants to be her new friend, but she doesn't speak to him. 

He thinks she doesn't like him but Abby says: “She does things just a little differently, in a Julia sort of way.”

Julia, chuckling, then displays a different-but-fun way of playing tag, and everyone joins in. But when a siren wails, she covers her ears and looks stricken.

“She needs to take a break,” Big Bird's human friend Alan calmly explains. Soon, all is well and play resumes.

“The 'Meet Julia' episode is something that I wish my son's friends had been able to see when they were small,” says Ms Gordon. “I remember him having meltdowns and his classmates not understanding how to react.” 

Julia has previously been the subject of a storybook released along with videos, e-books, an app and website.

This is part of a multifaceted initiative by Sesame Workshop, the organisation behind the programme, called “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.” 

Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop's senior vice president of US Social Impact, said she and her team “wanted to promote a better understanding and reduce the stigma often found around these children.”

“We're modelling the way both children and adults can look at autism from a strength-based perspective: finding things that all children share,“ she added. 

The episode Meet Julia airs on 10 April on US channels HBO and PBS and additional videos featuring Julia will be available online.

Additional reporting from Associated Press

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