Spencer Lott wanted to be a puppeteer from a young age, but little did he know that one day he’d be on “Sesame Street,” working on one of the show’s most impactful initiatives.
On April 10, 2017, Julia was introduced as the first character on the autism spectrum as part of “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children” initiative. Since then, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, especially after she was featured in the 2018 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Two years after her introduction, “Sesame Street” is expanding that initiative by introducing a few more characters: a family for Julia.
Lott, an alumnus of the University of Kansas, plays Samuel, Julia’s neurotypical brother. He’ll be in charge of both Samuel’s puppetry and voice.
“It’s a huge responsibility and a huge honor. I want to make sure I do it with honesty and joy so that they can see a little bit of themselves and their families on the show,” Lott said. “It’s something that I take very seriously.”
Lott was originally introduced to “Sesame Street” puppetry at a workshop in 2006. Since then, he has grown in his ability and experience, with some help along the way.
“I have wonderful friends and mentors at ‘Sesame Street’ that have guided me and hired me for jobs, bringing me along the way and training me up,” Lott said.
Lott’s role as Samuel will be a very important one within the family, with the relationship of children with autism and their siblings being an important part of their lives.
“Many times a brother like Samuel is a best friend to a sibling with autism. They’re an interpreter, a confidant, and a support system,” Lott said. “In every scene, I’ve got my big brother hat on and am looking out for Julia while bridging the world between the neurotypical characters and her.”
This isn’t Lott’s first time working with children with autism. Part of what led him here was his work with an organization called Trusty Sidekick Theater Company, which puts on performances specifically built for the children.
“Through these projects, I’ve met so many different versions of Julia and Sam and their family,” Lott said. “It’s been really incredible and fulfilling to work with these people.”
Amy Buchanan, a friend of Lott and fellow class of 2010 alumna, said these initiatives are personal to her, as she grew up around an older brother with Down syndrome.
“It was always hard for me because it was just a truth of my life that there weren’t a lot of people in my community that had a family like mine,” Buchanan said. “It was really easy to feel separate and different.”
Part of this project is to give these families more representation on a national platform. It’s a small part of creating a culture that’s more loving and accepting of people on the autism spectrum.
“We as a culture only accept things when they’re put in front of our face constantly, especially when it comes to any kind of diversity,” Buchanan said. “The more you have access and exposure to something, the more natural it feels. Getting to children when they’re so young and experiencing the world for the first time allows them to learn that this is normal.”
It goes beyond just showing representation to the general public. TV shows and other forms of entertainment introducing characters like Julia and her family also allow people affected by autism to relate and feel included.
“It tells you that you’re not alone and it’s okay to be happy,” Buchanan said. “Sometimes when you feel different, it’s hard to give yourself permission to love what you have because it doesn’t feel normal. This helps families like mine love themselves more and find that happiness.”
It’s not just another job for Lott — doing work that has a positive significance in how it affects people is something he’s passionate about.
“Inclusivity is not some cool and fashionable word, it means really asking yourself ‘How do I go out of my way to include someone that needs to be included?’” Buchanan said. “For the entire time I’ve known Spencer, he’s been figuring out how to do this kind of work that brings joy to people and makes the world a better place. When I found out that this was the work he was going to be doing on ‘Sesame Street,’ it just made sense.”
As for future plans, Lott is working on additional projects, including the upcoming film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” starring Tom Hanks, but also intends to continue contributing to the autism initiative to make as much of an impact as possible.
“I’m helping craft this with the rest of the team, but there’s a lot of very intelligent people behind this character and this autism initiative. The potential for impact here is enormous and we’re going to see over time how many ways the impact is felt both big and small,” Lott said. “There’s going to be a lot of fun new stories, songs, and adventures that this family is going to have around ‘Sesame Street.’”