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'Sesame Street' puppeteer is helping neurodivergent kids express their feelings

Stacey Gordon
Mark Brodie/KJZZ
Stacey Gordon

A new partnership between a Phoenix-based puppeteer, HP and a nonprofit aims to help neurodivergent kids learn to express themselves and their feelings.

Stacey Gordon is the founder of Puppet Pie and plays the first "Sesame Street" character with autism, named Julia.

The Print Pals program allows people to print out different puppet designs, along with features that make those puppets completely customizable. Gordon says the project is specifically targeted for people who are neurodivergent — a group of people she says that includes herself.

Gordon brought some of her paper puppets to KJZZ's studio recently to chat with The Show about why this is a particularly good activity for this population.

Conversation highlights

STACY GORDON: So, they say that 73% of kids who are neurodivergent — and adults — have challenges expressing their feelings and their emotions. And while it's sometimes hard for even neurotypical people to express their feelings and emotions, it can be a little bit harder when you struggle to identify those. Doing art in general is a wonderful, wonderful way to express yourself. And then neuodivergent kids, specifically autistic kids, tend to connect with puppets way better than they do with human beings. There are a lot of muscles in your face to have to parse out what they mean. Whereas a puppet is very simple. It always says what it means. Its feelings are very obvious. You know, its whole body will express, rather than just an eyebrow, and you have to figure out: What does that eyebrow mean?

And so what we're doing is we're not only creating pieces that kids can put together to create whatever they want, whether it's a robot or a bird or a cow or a pig or a person. They can have that creature, that thing, express themselves however they see fit.

Was it a conscious decision then to try to keep the design relatively simple to make easier for the child to understand what feelings the puppet is trying to express?

GORDON: Yeah. So what I did was I made a lot of different eyeballs ... You've got some in front of you.

They almost look like lima beans, with the pupil, the black circle sort of toward the top.

GORDON: Yeah. ... They're tilted outwards a little bit, it looks a little bit maybe sad or worried. Now, I want you to turn those eyeballs upside down. And I very specifically didn't label any of the eyes with feelings, because you can turn them upside down, and now they look angry. We, we need to let kids express themselves without labels, necessarily, or have their puppet express. And then we can start a conversation — even if it's just planting a seed, even if they don't know, planting the seed of: "I wonder how your puppet feels right now?" Or "Oh, I see that your puppet's eyes are turned, turned inward. Is your puppet angry? Your puppet's mouth is open, and it's got a big smile. Is your puppet happy? I wonder what made your puppet happy. I wonder what makes you happy?"

Just starting these conversations to get a little bit more, you know, social-emotional well-being and, and, frankly, the language of feelings out there so that we can help identify and express them.

It sounds like it would also be helpful for the parents of these kids to be able to connect with their kids and help each other understand themselves.

GORDON: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I always say what's good for the goose is good for the gander. This is good for everybody.

How did you decide which animals and the designs of the people? Was it the thinking just to try to make them animals or designs that kids would recognize and be drawn to?

GORDON: Honestly, I wanted to give kids options. So these, these ears on this pig might be good on a unicorn. There are ears with hearing aids, human ears with hearing aids; there's a cochlear implant; there's an assisted communication; there's pearl necklaces; there's robot parts; there's wheelchair wheels; there's monster feet; there's horse hooves. You could make a giraffe if you wanted to, you know. You don't have to color ... just because I colored this pink, you know, and it made it into a little pig, it could have been colored any way.

When you talk about creating puppets, especially for neurodivergent kids, we need to talk about your day job, which is on "Sesame Street," where you play Julia who is an autistic character? What have you learned from playing her and getting the feedback? How that factored into what you're doing?

GORDON: Oh, gosh, that's a great question. From playing her, I think that I've pulled, honestly, from seeing the public's response to her. I see just how important it is. And then I use my own personal experiences being neurodivergent, having sensory sensitivities, all of that goes into creating them. I think that with Julia, she's really helped me step into a place of advocacy more.

When I was just the parent to an autistic child, I was his advocate, you know. But when you play a character on a television show — on a global television show — you're her advocate as well. And making sure that everything is right for her, kids like her, the inclusivity is really what I've tried to focus on.

Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.
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