Before we get to the matters at hand—including the ways in which we humans judge one another and an energetic puppet with autism named Julia—let’s consider the current value of a piece of imaginary real estate known as Sesame Street. Since its launch in 1969, the show has often been kids’ first step into the world beyond their living room rugs, the common cultural campfire for 95 percent of preschoolers—about 200 million Americans—who watched the show as children.

And it is a place—an ingenious staging of reality. “Here, they created a street and a community that closely resembles what kids experience,” says Jeffrey D. Dunn, who arrived to run Sesame Workshop as CEO in 2014. “It’s not fantasy land, and it’s not a made-up, faraway place.” He pauses. “That’s one of the things that makes it so powerful.”

For years the show’s creators have been spicing up their alluring, hand-held curriculum of ABC’s and 1,2,3’s with lessons about life as it is. There has been standout content on marriage and death, on the families of those in the military, on hunger in America and kids with incarcerated parents, and there was an HIV-positive Muppet on the South African series.

But one of the most groundbreaking innovations in its long history of wondrous storytelling began in the late 1990s, when Leslie Kimmelman, then an editor at Sesame Magazine, noticed that she had company at work: other folks who had kids with autism. What was more, the characters that her colleagues crafted spoke powerfully to her son, Greg. At 3, he seemed to connect deeply to Sesame characters. “Mention Elmo, he’d turn to you,” she says. A naturally musical child, he watched episodes with glee, singing the songs. By age 5, he’d spent two Halloweens dressed like Elmo.