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Zach Hyman/Sesame Workshop
Zach Hyman/Sesame Workshop

The Quiet Strength of Julia, the First Muppet with Autism

Zach Hyman/Sesame Workshop
Zach Hyman/Sesame Workshop

On Monday, April 10, viewers of Sesame Street on HBO will get their first glimpse of Julia, an oval-eyed, red-haired 4-year-old who likes finger painting, playing tag, and splashing in puddles. She’s the first new Muppet cast member on the series in nearly a decade, a significant milestone as Sesame enters its 47th season.

Naturally, Big Bird is curious about the new face. He extends a wing in greeting, but Julia doesn’t grab it. She doesn’t look up at him. She continues painting, careful not to get any on her hands. After a siren blares in the background, she grows agitated and wants to get away. Alan, the human adult in the group, explains that sometimes Julia needs questions repeated to her, and that she may do things a little differently than everyone else. Julia has autism.

It might seem simple on paper, but that brief exchange took Sesame Workshop more than three years to research, conceptualize, and execute. In depicting a character with autism, the show has consulted with more than a dozen autism organizations, painstakingly reviewed Julia’s behaviors and dialogue, and enlisted the talents of several crew members who have been personally touched by people with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

If Julia resonates with viewers, it could be the beginning of a radical change in how the general population perceives autism and the reported one in 68 children who are diagnosed with the developmental disorder. The week before her premiere, Julia’s puppeteer, Stacey Gordon, appeared in front of Congress—in character—to help raise awareness of Julia and the challenges faced by children living with ASD and their families.

“There’s no knowing how far and wide this will reach,” Gordon tells mental_floss.

It’s a far cry from just a year ago, when Gordon wasn’t even sure she’d get the job.

In April 2014, Sesame Workshop and advocacy group Autism Speaks announced "See Amazing in All Children," a joint online initiative that seeks to customize learning materials for underrepresented families. Previously, the nonprofit Workshop had set its focus on addressing children who struggle with having incarcerated parents, or divorce, or who worry about having people they love serve in the military.

The goal of See Amazing was autism awareness. “It was in response to the growing number of children diagnosed in the U.S. with autism,” Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop's executive vice president for global impact and philanthropy, tells mental_floss. “That took several years of research, tapping into advisory groups and experts in autism.”

In building awareness, the Workshop hoped to combat negative or misunderstood perceptions among preschoolers who might conceivably encounter a classmate with autism, potentially reducing the likelihood of afflicted children being bullied. While the initial program rollout featured workbooks, activities, and video profiles of real families dealing with autism, Westin and Sesame Workshop saw a need for a character who could embody the disorder and make it relatable in the context of their other, not-quite-human cast members.

Workshop employee Leslie Kimmelman, who has a child with autism, wrote a digital storybook, We’re Amazing, 1, 2, 3!, featuring a character named Julia, who disliked loud noises but was still a friendly, amenable presence. It was and remains a distinctive characterization of autism in the media, which has long struggled to depict those on the spectrum as something other than psychologically distant people who have some form of genius in a specialized field, a trend that started with 1988’s Rain Man.

Because of the positive response from those in the autism community, Julia’s presence kept growing. She appeared in animated shorts online and as a “walkaround,” or costumed character, during live events. The support for her was significant, and substantial enough for the Workshop to plot its most ambitious move: adding Julia to the cast of Sesame Street.

“Ultimately, we decided Julia would reach the most children if she were on the show,” Westin says.

While writers and producers at the Workshop were collaborating with experts in the field of autism research and support, puppeteer Stacey Gordon was in Phoenix, Arizona, wondering where they’d take Julia next. As the parent of a now-13-year-old son with autism, Gordon was thrilled that the disorder was being highlighted.

“Then I found an article saying there were no plans at the time to make her into a Muppet,” Gordon says. “I thought, ‘Well, if they ever do, I really want to be Julia.’ It felt like a pipe dream, though.”

It wasn’t. As a performer and puppet-maker for the Great Arizona Puppet Theater, Gordon knew Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, who portrays Abby Cadabby on the show. When Sesame producers decided to incorporate Julia as a new cast member, Carrara-Rudolph recommended Gordon try out for the part.

“I sent them a video just kind of proving I was a real puppeteer, and then they invited me to audition,” Gordon says. She sent in a second video, and then got a callback to perform live at the show’s set in Queens in early 2016.

“I really thought I would just be going through the motions, because I thought I was too short,” says Gordon, who stands five-foot-two. But with the addition of 6-inch platform shoes and some creative slouching by other cast members, she was able to keep Julia at eye level to the other performers. Two weeks later, Gordon got a call saying she had the job.

“She just instinctively knew how Julia would respond in certain circumstances,” Westin says. “There’s no doubt her experience as the parent of a child with autism added a sensibility to how she would portray her.”

While Gordon was overjoyed at the news, she wasn’t able to share much of it. Julia was a top-secret addition to the show, and it would be over a year before the general public would get a glimpse of her, first on 60 Minutes in March 2017, and then in a series of short online videos. “It feels funny even saying ‘Julia’ now because I couldn’t for the longest time,” Gordon says.

As conceptualized by designer Louis Henry Mitchell and Muppet builder Rollie Krewson, Julia is highly unique—not just in her actions, but in her physical appearance. Unlike most Muppets, her eyes are oval and can be switched out to show more of her eyelids. She also has two sets of arms, including a pair that can “flap” when she gets excited. She holds tightly to a stuffed bunny named Fluffster, a trait that Gordon perceived in her own son’s presentation of autism.

“He had a monkey when he was younger,” Gordon says. “There was always something that we called a fidget in his hands he would play with when he got nervous.” Both Gordon’s son and Julia also have problems processing sensory exposure, with loud noises bringing on agitation.

As research went on, Julia also became slightly less verbal. That seeming aloofness materializes in her first appearance, which allows her friends—including Elmo and Abby—to explain to Big Bird why she behaves a little differently than he might be used to. “Abby overtly says, 'Julia has autism,'” Westin says. “It’s an opportunity to explain that, although she might not show it in the same ways, she still wants to be friends.”

If Julia is embraced by those in the autism community, it will be a significant step forward for a movement that has longed for a character in the media that’s reflective of their experiences. But, as Westin and others have noted, autism can manifest itself in a multitude of ways across key areas of social, communication, and behavioral difficulties. “If you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve seen one child with autism,” Gordon says, echoing a common sentiment in the autism community.

Already, there’s been concern voiced that Julia’s gender might not be representative of the fact that boys are diagnosed with autism five times more often than girls. “There was lots of discussion over her gender,” Westin says. “What we learned is that there’s a big misconception where people don’t think girls can even get autism. We wanted to debunk that myth.”

For others, the fact that Julia’s experiences may be distilled to a handful of traits could lead to a narrow understanding of autism. “She can’t represent everyone,” Gordon says. “My son doesn’t exhibit every trait. No one exhibits every trait.” Instead, Sesame Workshop is hopeful that children will see that regardless of how autism presents itself, compassion, patience, and love are instrumental in helping others cope.

Julia is set to be featured in another prominent role later this season, with several more episodes already shot for next year. Beyond that, Westin and Gordon aren’t sure what the future holds. “I’d love for her to be out there as much as possible,” Westin says.

For Gordon, Julia represents an opportunity for more families to be aware of the signs of autism. Her own son wasn’t diagnosed until age 7, a late intervention that meant insurance didn’t cover a portion of his potential treatment options. In her own quiet way, Julia might be responsible for getting more families to think about early intervention, and for classmates and others to consider how Julia can change their perceptions of what it means to be a person with autism.    

“When Julia hears the siren, Big Bird says, ‘I didn’t think it was that loud,’” Gordon says. “And Elmo answers, ‘Well, it was loud to Julia.’ That’s something we can apply to every human being. It shows us we can have compassion for everyone.”

To explore Sesame Workshop’s resources on autism, visit Sesame Street and Autism

All images courtesy of Zach Hyman/Sesame Workshop.

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Cell Service: Inside the World of Prison Librarians
Eric Francis, Getty Images
Eric Francis, Getty Images

While working as a librarian at one of the Ohio Department of Corrections' facilities, Andrew Hart received a fair amount of strange book requests. But one, from 2012, stands out in his mind.

"I was wondering if you could find a book for me," the inmate said.

“What is it?” Hart asked.

“I want a book on deboning chickens."

Hart paused. “Why would you need that?”

“I want to be a butcher when I get out.”

“I was not,” Hart tells Mental Floss, “going to get this guy a book on deboning chickens.”

There were other requests: books on getting out of restraints, survival guides, and other titles that would not be appropriate for a population of violent offenders. But for the two years Hart spent working as a prison librarian, the sometimes odd interactions were a small price to pay for helping to facilitate a sense of normalcy in an otherwise isolating and restrictive environment. With their carpeted floors, windows, and computers, prison libraries are one of the few sanctuaries available to inmates—a place that looks and feels like part of the outside world.

“I think it reminds them of a school library,” Hart says. “It brings them back to their childhood.”

The escapism afforded by the books can dilute the urge to pass time by engaging in criminal behavior. Libraries can even prepare prisoners for reentry into society after release, arming them with knowledge to pursue careers.

That ambition is what prompts graduates with degrees in library science to take detours—some temporary, others permanent—into managing books behind bars. Like public librarians, Hart organized book clubs, wrangled donations, and set up a shelf full of recommended reading. Unlike his public counterparts, Hart also had to take self-defense courses, check returned books for blood stains, and remain mindful of attempts to manipulate the privileges the library offered.

“You can be friendly,” he says of his interactions with inmates, “but you can’t be friends.”

 
 

Being allowed the pleasure of reading has been a privilege for prisoners for nearly as long as the idea of criminal detention itself. In the 1700s, religious tomes were handed out with hopes that wayward convicts would find spiritual guidance and correct their behaviors. In the 19th and 20th centuries, an increase in public libraries bled into penal institutions, and scholars advocated for “bibliotherapy,” or rehabilitation through literacy. Inmates devoured texts on psychology and law, increasing their self-awareness and sometimes antagonizing officials by challenging their sentences or their treatment within a facility.

Today, roughly 1.5 million Americans are incarcerated in federal or state facilities that offer varying degrees of access to literature, from a few shelves full of worn titles to sprawling legal and recreational selections. When Hart decided to put his bachelor’s degree in criminology and master’s in library science to use at the Ohio facility, he was dismayed to find that the unit had only 600 books in its inventory.

“It was dimly lit and barely had any computers,” he says. “My heart just sank.”

Hart set about improving the library by opening up interlibrary loans—where inmates could request books from public libraries—and “hustling” for book donations from local merchants and other sources. “When you think of a library, you think of books,” he says. “I wanted inmates to come in and see the shelves were full.”

In the two years Hart spent at the facility, the library’s inventory grew from 600 books to more than 15,000. When prisoners weren’t after books on deboning animals, they sought out titles on crocheting, affordable living in tiny homes, and what Hart calls “street lit,” a genre of memoirs from reformed criminals. The Japanese graphic novel Naruto was popular; so was the Christian-driven Left Behind series, about the people who remain following the Rapture.

Inmates at a women's prison read books in the library
John Moore, Getty Images

Anna Nash, an institutional librarian who oversees multiple facilities for the Institutional Library Services arm of the Washington State Library, says that young adult titles are in demand. “So are paranormal romance titles,” she tells Mental Floss.

That prisoners seek out escapist fiction is not so surprising. But for the groups of prisoners who are admitted to the library on a rotating schedule, it’s as much the environment as the content that makes them feel as though they are somewhere else. “The library feels normal,” Nash says. “I had someone who worked in a public library come in as a volunteer one time and she was surprised at how clean everything and everyone looked. It’s a place where prison politics can be quasi-suspended.”

If a prison is home to inmates who segregate themselves by race or gang affiliation, the library is a place to congregate. Hart spearheaded book clubs and discussion groups; Nash recently finished a meet-up to discuss George Orwell’s Animal Farm. For one project, Hart solicited recipes from inmates and compiled them into a cookbook that he had custom-printed. For another, he collected art for publication and had the warden of the prison choose his favorite for the cover. He also became a notary so he could help inmates with their legal documents.

“I think it helped them see me in a different light,” Hart says.

 
 

How inmates see and perceive librarians is often the variable that separates public libraries from prison facilities. “They want to test you, to see how far they can go,” Nash says.

When Nash accepted her first job at a Washington prison library in 2008, friends and relatives were puzzled. “You’re in there with men?” some asked. “With murderers?”

She was. And as a staff member, she was expected to exert no less authority than any other employee of the prison. Upon hiring, she underwent a self-defense course in the event an inmate attacked her. She told inmates to tuck in their shirts so that they couldn’t obscure contraband. She admonished them to keep a physical distance from one another.

Nash also avoided answering any personal questions, no matter how innocuous they might seem, like "What’s your favorite book?" “They’re trying to test boundaries," says says. "We used the word ‘testing,' which is trying to get a staff member to do something they’re not allowed to do.” An inmate, for example, might want to tear the comics out of the newspaper. If Nash said no, the inmate would argue that another employee had let them do it before.

An inmate reads a book in his prison cell
Ian Waldie, Getty Images

“They will try to play you,” Hart says, recalling the time a prisoner asked if he could tattoo a friend in the library, a fairly obvious infraction of the rules. “They want to seem chummy with you, like you’re two friends hanging out.” A prisoner might have a story for why they need to make more copies of legal papers than what’s allowed, or why they need to check out more books than the maximum allotted. To get an official to bend the rules is something of a victory for the prisoner, and one that could conceivably result in a breakdown of the supervisor's authority.

For Nash, being a woman assigned to a male population posed its own challenges. “When someone walks in and says, ‘Hey, beautiful,’ they know what they’re doing,” she says. “And if you smile back, they think it means something more.”

Hart has heard stories about employees developing inappropriate relationships with inmates. “It can creep in, where you begin bringing in stuff for them,” he says. “You want to be their friend, but you have to maintain that separation.”

It’s better to be the one doing the asking. When Nash tries to find out what a prisoner wants so she can make a recommendation, the answer can depend on whether they have a release date in sight. For some, a library isn’t just a release from prison; it’s a way to avoid prison after their release.

 
 

At the age of 20, Eddie Parnell flunked out of community college after less than one semester. Drugs held more sway than an education. “Once I tried meth, that was it for me,” he tells Mental Floss. The descent wasn’t immediate—he could hold down a job while fending off misdemeanor charges—but it was inevitable. At 30, Parnell began the first of what would become three prison stints for drug possession and burglary, the final one stretching for 31 months in Walla Walla, Washington.

At Walla Walla, passing time with a television was an expensive proposition. “A TV cost $275 and we made $30 a month working in the kitchen,” Parnell says. “So I would just dig my heels into a good story.” Parnell read Louis L’Amour westerns before growing tired of their repetitive narratives; he segued to Clive Cussler and Stephen King. Some of the paperbacks were so worn that inmates would tape labels from shampoo bottles to try and reinforce their torn covers.

For much of his sentence, Parnell read books simply to pass time. But Walla Walla’s educational library—a separate facility from the regular library—promised more. The department had just received a boost from philanthropist Doris Buffett (sister of Warren Buffet) that helped fund a program where inmates could earn an associate’s degree based on the belief that educational funding was sorely lacking when exploring solutions to the issue of recidivism.

Parnell decided he would pursue a degree in molecular bioscience and used all of the resources available to him—including the librarian—to make sure he was stepping into the right environment upon his release. “I couldn’t have done that without access to those resources,” he says.

A prison inmate holds up a self-help book
John Moore, Getty Images

According to the National Institute of Justice, two-thirds of released inmates are rearrested within three years, so mired in the cycle of criminal offenses that they see no other alternative. “They say reentry begins at sentencing, but the culture is still a ways off from that,” Nash says.

Even so, inmates often come in seeking information on how to build opportunities during and after their imprisonment. Some opt to try and learn a trade or how to start a small business. Others take advantage of the reference material in reentry programs to try and cultivate an exit strategy, whether it’s earning a GED or pursuing a degree. Upon his release in 2014, Parnell went the degree route.

“I graduate in May,” Parnell says. “Instead of being a detriment on society, I’ll be paying taxes. The library system contributed to this.”

 
 

For all of the benefits offered, prison libraries still come up against bureaucratic obstacles. The longest-running one is censorship, or the idea that certain titles aren’t suited for incarcerated populations.

But who decides, and why? Recently, New Jersey corrections officials were criticized for taking a book titled The New Jim Crow out of circulation. Published in 2010, the nonfiction work details accusations of racial discrimination in sentencing. Such action is in conflict with a librarian’s support of freedom of speech and publication and the American Library Association’s call to fight censorship as part of its ethical mandates.

“In Ohio, I called it the ‘banned book list,’ even though a lawyer vehemently told me not to do that,” Hart says. “Usually, it’s when a review team of a librarian, an administrator, a teacher, or someone else finds something objectionable.” The New Jim Crow is certainly a nebulous choice; other titles, like how-tos on weapons-making or combat, are natural omissions. “I couldn’t even get a tai chi book in,” Hart says.

Titles can be taken out of circulation for reasons other than content. A handful of times, Hart tossed a book he thought had blood stains on it. When he mentioned it to an inmate who worked in the library, the man said that wasn’t likely to happen too often.

“Why not?” Hart asked.

“We’re not going to return a book with blood on it,” he said. “We’ll take care of it.”

After two years, a fatigued Hart went on to another state job outside of the prison system. “It was fulfilling but very stressful,” he says, citing long hours and the demands of a job with limited resources.

Like Nash, who still works with inmates in Washington, Hart still finds tremendous value in making sure offenders have access to the written word. For inmates who choose to take advantage, it can be a life-changing component of doing time.

“Libraries reduce mental, emotional, and physical conflicts in the prison system,” Parnell says. “If a person is reading a book, they’re not picking a fight in the next cell over. If not for the library, I would be getting ready to go back in.”

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Sally Died of Dysentery: A History of The Oregon Trail
MECC
MECC

The eighth grade students sat and watched as Don Rawitsch dragged an enormous device into their classroom. It was December 3, 1971, and Rawitsch—a student teacher at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis who taught history at a local grade school—was ready to show off what his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, had managed to create in only two weeks of programming and with limited, amateur coding skills: a game called The Oregon Trail.

There was no screen to focus on. The computer’s interface was a teletype machine, which spat out instructions and the consequences of a player’s actions on sheets of paper. Adopting the well-worn shoes of settlers migrating from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, the students debated how best to spend their money, when to stop and rest, and how to deal with the sudden and unexpected illnesses that plagued their game counterparts. Rawitsch even supplied them with a map of the journey so they could visualize the perils ahead.

The students loved it: The Oregon Trail would eventually morph from a part-time experiment in guided learning to a staple of classrooms across the country. Kids who had never before heard of diphtheria or cholera would bemoan such cruel fates; tens of thousands of people would (virtually) drown trying to cross rivers; more than 65 million copies would be sold.

But Rawitsch was oblivious to the cultural touchstone The Oregon Trail would become. He didn't foresee the simple game having much of a shelf life beyond the semester, so at the end of the year, he deleted it.

 
 

As low-tech as it was, the first version of The Oregon Trail was still miles ahead of anything Rawitsch could have imagined when he set about trying to engage his students. As a 21-year-old history major, Rawitsch was young enough to realize that his teenaged students needed something more provocative than dry textbooks. In the fall of 1971, he decided to create a board game based on the precarious movement of 19th-century travelers looking to head west to improve their living conditions.

On a large piece of butcher’s paper, he drew a map that provided a rough outline of the 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death. Every decision played a part in whether or not they'd make it to the end without keeling over.

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

Rawitsch showed his idea for the board game to Dillenberger and Heinemann, two other seniors from Carleton, who both had experience coding using the BASIC computer language. They suggested Rawitsch’s game would be perfect for a text-based adventure using teletype. A player could, for example, type “BANG” in order to shoot oxen or deer, and the computer would identify how fast and how accurately the typist finished the command—the quicker they were, the better chance they had of securing dinner.

Rawitsch liked the idea, but he was due to start teaching westward expansion in just a couple weeks, so there was no time to waste. Heinemann and Dillenberger worked after-hours for two weeks to get The Oregon Trail ready. When it made its debut that December day in 1971, Rawitsch knew he had a hit—albeit a transient one. Like a teacher who had supervised a special crafts project for a specific classroom, Rawitsch didn’t see a need to retain The Oregon Trail for the future and promptly deleted it from the school’s mainframe system.

Dillenberger and Heinemann took permanent teaching jobs after graduation; Rawitsch found his number called up in the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector and as part of that found work at the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-sponsored program that sought to modernize public schools with computing supplies. It was 1974, and Rawitsch believed he had the perfect software to go along with their initiative: The Oregon Trail. Even though he had deleted the game, Rawitsch had kept a printout of the code.

Typing it in line by line, Rawitsch had the game back up and running and available to students across Minnesota. This time, he consulted actual journal entries of settlers to see when and where danger might strike and programmed the game to intervene at the appropriate places along the path. If a real traveler had endured a 20 percent chance of running out of water, so would the player.

Rawitsch got permission from Dillenberger and Heinemann to repurpose the game for MECC. It’s unlikely any one of the three of them realized just how much of an institution the game would become, or how MECC's business partner, Apple—then an upstart computer corporation—would revolutionize the industry.

By 1978, MECC was partnering with the hardware company to sell Apple IIs and learning software to school districts around the country. Rather than being a regional hit, The Oregon Trail—now sporting primitive screen graphics—was becoming a national fixture in classrooms.

 
 

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, school computer classes across America devoted at least some portion of their allotted time to the game. The covered wagon and its misadventures offered something that vaguely resembled the hypnotic, pixely worlds waiting for students on their Nintendo consoles at home. In that respect, The Oregon Trail felt a little less like learning and a lot more like entertainment—although completing the journey in one piece was an unusual occurrence. More often, players would be defeated by malnutrition or drowning in attempts to cross a river. They'd also be confounded by the idea they could hunt and kill a 2000-pound animal but were able to take only a fraction of it back to their wagon. (Confronted with this during a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, Rawitsch noted that "the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy," and suggested incorporating a "fridge with a 2000-mile extension cord.")

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

An updated version, Oregon Trail II, debuted on CD-ROM in 1995. MECC would change hands a few times, being acquired by venture capitalists and then by the Learning Company, and was even owned for a period of time by Mattel. Attempts to update it with flashy graphics felt contrary to the spirit of the game; like the settlers it depicted, The Oregon Trail seemed to belong to another era.

Today, both Dillenberger and Heinemann are retired; Rawitsch is a tech consultant. None of them received any profit participation for the software. Their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016 and was adapted into a card game that same year. Today, players of the popular role-playing game Minecraft can access a virtual Oregon Trail world; the original game is also playable in browsers. Technology may have advanced, but you can still die of dysentery as often as you like.

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