Saturday, May 5, 2012

Drawing the Line on Media Access for your Child with Asperger's Syndrome (Part 1)

We all know that too much TV is bad for your kids. The same goes for computers. Quite frankly, the same should apply for iPads, Phones, books and portable music players but somehow our society doesn't seem to have issues with these.

Of course, all of these rules apply for "normal" kids. But how different is it for kids with special needs, and in particular, those with asperger's syndrome? Should they be afforded more time on these devices? Less? -- or is their diagnosis irrelevant in this case?

In this series, I present my thoughts on the matter.

The Needs of Children with Asperger's Syndrome
Children with aspergers syndrome and other ASD's often have vastly different needs to their neurotypical counterparts. Chief among these needs is the need for visual and experiential learning.

While most kids can easily follow classroom conversation and can easily separate the teacher's jokes and the general buzz of conversation from the teaching material of the day - many children with Aspergers Syndrome can not.

For these children, gestures, tone and implied statements lose their meaning and even much of the blackboard conversation is lost. If your child with asperger's has co-conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia, learning difficulties or sight, tracking or hearing issues then the problem is further complicated as they struggle to copy text from the board before it is erased and write sentences before the material is forgotten.  If they miss something, there is no going back.

These kids benefit from repeated experiential and visual learning. It's one of the areas in which television, computers and audio devices excel.  I've discussed at length before about how historical movies can teach history to visual learners far more effectively than classroom discussions.  The same is true for computers, particularly math applications and even audiobooks, iPads and phones.

Clearly the media has a big part to play in educating our special needs children and clearly it's very effective when used correctly.

How Kids with Aspergers pick up social skills from the Media
Forgetting the academic side for a moment, the media, particularly television and movies, also has a big part to play in teaching your kids social skills. You may have noticed your child quoting Star Wars in answer to a question. The quote was probably in context and used at least half-jokingly. It's sill a perfect example of how your child is bringing their social learning from the media into everyday life.

It's well worth exposing your older children to realistic drama, sitcoms and romantic comedies so that they gain an understanding of the sorts of things that are expected in relationships; what should be said, how to express empathy and how to say sorry.  Younger viewers won't have the attention span for these types of films but their older siblings certainly will.

There's a lot of literature about how violent movies make their viewers violent. I can see the point of the discussion but I don't entirely agree. I believe that provided that kids understand the difference between reality and fiction, they can usually escape most unaffected - though clearly these sorts of films do have a desensitizing effect.

I do however fully support the notion that exposing kids to obnoxious comedy can make them less socially acceptable. So much of today's "comedy" relies on fart jokes, crude language and getting one's "tackle" out. Yes, Ben Stiller, Rob Schneider, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, Seth Rogen and the Wayans brothers - I'm clearly looking at you.. It's a big problem because far from teaching our asperger's children how to behave responsibly in social settings, these films are arming them with the worst kind on humour.

I can clearly remember walking around the playground at school in my youth spouting "monty python" quotes, many of which were borderline (or worse) in terms of language. How much worse would it be if the kids were quoting from the comedies of today?  Yes, it's funny and yes it has a place but it has to be monitored and filtered to make sure that it doesn't become part of your child's language.

Further Adverse Effects
The quoting example is only the tip of the iceberg because when we were young, you generally watched the entire movie in context. These days kids can use youtube to rewatch funny but offensive parts of films over and over again.

There's more to come but I realize that this is already a long post. In my next post, I want to look at the good and bad effects of books, computers and video games. 


Anonymous said...

"about how historical movies can teach history to visual learners far more effectively than classroom discussions."

...and documentaries about history can teach even more effectively than historical movies! :)

"It's well worth exposing your older children to realistic drama, sitcoms and romantic comedies "

That's true for realistic drama, realistic sitcoms, and realistic comedies. Unrealistic sitcoms and unrealistic romantic comedies are still bad for this purpose.

For starters, there's 8 Myths Romantic Comedies Perpetuate at

Meanwhile, at Caroline Narby mentions how unrealistic Disney Channel sitcoms are:

"...In the 'Understanding where to fit in' section, Iland describes the high school social hierarchy. As she imagines it, it looks like something right out of the Disney Channel: cheerleaders and jocks at the 'top' among the 'Popular/Elite,' most kids somewhere in the 'middle,' and at the 'bottom' are 'Unique/Unusual Groups.' The vagueness that ends up overwhelming the entire chapter continues through this section. What exactly does it mean to be 'popular?' Popular with whom? Iland offhandedly asserts that 'Whoever belongs to this Popular group has what the other teens at the school want,' but she never says what exactly that is.

"I'm only twenty-three—I was a teen not all that long ago. I recall quite clearly that my (public, suburban, affluent, predominantly white) high school's social structure was far more complex than this simplistic caricature. If I absolutely had to define what 'group' I was part of, I'd have to say I was at some intersection between 'the smart kids" and 'the weird kids'—and as such, the 'popular kids' had absolutely nothing that I or my peers wanted, except maybe parents with money. While we had limited social capital in certain circles, the kids whom Iland might identify as 'elite' had limited social capital within our circle. That's how teen society *actually* works..."

back to romantic comedies, and I put this quote last because it's the longest, as Gavin de Becker said in his book The Gift of Fear : Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence:

"...My generation saw in The Graduate that there is one romantic strategy to use above all others: persistence. This same strategy is at the core of every stalking case. Men pursuing unlikely or inappropriate relationships with women and getting them is a common theme promoted in our culture. Just recall Flashdance, Tootsie, The Heartbreak Kid, 10, Blame it on Rio, Honeymoon in Las Vegas, Indecent Proposal.

"This Hollywood formula could be called Boy Wants Girl, Girl Doesn't Want Boy, Boy Harasses Girl, Boy Gets Girl. Many movies teach that if you just stay with it, even if you offend her, even if she says she wants nothing to do with you, even if you've treated her like trash (and sometimes because you've treated her like trash), you'll get the girl. Even if she's in another relationship, even if you look like Dustin Hoffman, you'll eventually get Katherine Ross or Jessica Lange. Persistence will win the war Against All Odds (another of these movies, by the way). Even the seemingly innocuous TV show Cheers touches the topic. Sam's persistent and inappropriate sexual harassment of two female co-workers—eight years of it—doesn't get him fired or sued. It does, however, get him both women..."

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting post and I've changed my views over time. I used to be fairly strict about how much TV the kids watched, I worried that too much would come at the expense of experiencing real life, and I also worried about particular shows becoming their special interest and I'd slowly be driven insane by repeats of Dora the explorer for the rest of my life! Ha! Thankfully though, while the kids shows were on repeat for a long time, my 7 year old has grown out of them. She's now interested in the 'people' shows, and her choice intrigues me: sitcoms from the 80s like golden girls, family ties, she also likes Kate plus 8, the voice and the tween stuff on Disney. She's fine, she has other interests, and TV gives her something to talk about with her school mates. Also, interestingly, as part of her HCWA funding, her OT purchased an iPad for her, so these things must have their place. I notice too, even at her small local Catholic school there are no blackboards or even white boards, they have 'smart boards' now, all electronic, digital and interactive. This is the age, and AS or typical, 'screen time' in moderation is how they will learn, I'm ok with that.

Amy Boyden said...

As I learn more about my son (suspect AS, GT also) I definitly look at technology and television differently. I can see how technology can fill a need to "feed" him intellectually and help him to cope with stress. I still feel like there needs to be a balance, but it is not cut and dried into hours or minutes per day. This is a much different outlook than I had when he was born. And with all the anti technology sentiment out there pertaining to child rearing, I find this is just another way (along with poplular discipline methods and teaching methods)that our AS kids don't fit the mold.

Anonymous said...

GT? Does that stand for Gifted/Talented?? I've not heard of that one before....

Trish said...

I recently attended a talk by a behaviorist in our school district and she made a small mention of "unplugging our kids" because they aren't learning social skills from video games.

I shared how this might be a good thing for my son. First, it is an age-appropriate interest and gives him something to talk about with his peers. Second, he will pay attention to what games the other kids like and invite them over when he wants to play a game he knows they like or when he is stuck on a level and needs help to get through it.

She actually said she was going to revise her recommendation to include that possibility. It was pretty cool!

Kass said...

It may sound ridiculous to say this, because so many adults find the show annoying, but my son has gotten a great deal of character education from Spongebob. He often contributes something to our conversations that makes him sound wise beyond his experience and when I say, "how do you know about that?" the answer is usually Spongebob. Every show has a lesson on how to treat other people.

I just wish I could get him to watch feature films! The limit seems to be 13 minute episodes of kids' shows, although he will watch several back-to-back. I've started telling him bedtime stories that are actually the plots of my favorite films, though, since film is important to me, and I'm hoping that will help.

@Trish I agree that video games give a socially awkward child something to talk with peers about. Good point!

AspieMom said...

My Aspie son definitely learns from the TV. When he was younger, I did have to monitor what he watched because he mimicked the characters -- I finally had to forbid him to watch a show called Ed, Edd and Eddie because it was so stupid and I got so tired of him quoting stupid inane things all the time. But, as he has gotten older, he watches a LOT of Disney channel, and I think it has really helped him to learn how to converse with people, and teaches him how other teens think. We watch all the Disney Channel movies together, and talk about them, and discuss how some comments would hurt someone's feelings, etc. Plus, he can sit and watch the Science Channel for hours on end... he learns more there than he ever will in school!

Anonymous said...

"...But, as he has gotten older, he watches a LOT of Disney channel, and I think it has really helped him to learn how to converse with people, and teaches him how other teens think..."

There's a lot more to how other teens live than the Disney Channel!

There's an excellent comment thread at

There, a lot of people talk about how their high school experiences were different from the stereotypes in the media. I highly recommend it! :)

Here are some examples:

"I think one aspect of (my suburban) high school experience that's not usually depicted very well is how much cross-over there was between groups. Cheerleaders might be on student council, but some may also be in AP [Advanced Placement, see ] classes (the smart kids). Football players might be in band or (more likely) choir. I mostly hung out with the poor kids, but I was also in AP so I was also in the Smart Kid grop. Some of my poor friends were in the Band Group. Some other of my poor friends were also stoners, but most weren't.

"Basically it was more like Venn diagrams than separate entities."

-posted by muddgirl at 1:28 PM on July 18

"here would have been hundreds of kids who were neither popular nor pariahs, who had certain interests or activities but weren't identified by them, and who didn't fit in any of the stereotypical High School Tribes. My assumption here is that these people aren't all that dramatic, and thus tend not to be the subject of movies about high school. That said, the main problem in Mean Girls was that I kept thinking, "why does she have to be stuck between these two particular cliques? Surely there are some nice girls who have a math study group and watch Gilmore Girls and drink Diet Dr. Pepper who she could be hanging out with instead...?""

-posted by Sara C. at 1:37 PM on July 18

"The rural high schools I knew were nothing like those in fiction. Except for seniors with drivers licenses and cars, the jocks tended to be town kids, but those of us who worked farms were far stronger as demonstrated during gym classes. We didn't play sports because we lived too far from school to make practice sessions."

-posted by Ardiril at 2:00 PM on July 18

"Not much of those movies is accurate. The biggest B.S. is the popularity and social status culture, and the whole trope of OMG THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PARTY. That culture didn't exist, and if it had, the outcasts would not long to be a part of it. There were many smaller cliques but they were not arranged around a central point. There was no band of the most popular girls and guys who ruled the school. There was lots of stratification by attractiveness but it was within groups not so much across groups. Prom was not a gigantic deal."

- posted by fleacircus at 2:29 PM on July 18

Anonymous said...

Here are some more examples from that thread:

"There were groups of friends, but there weren't hard cliques. On any given day, I might've hung out with the goth kids, the stoner and hippie kids, the musician kids, or whoever based on my mood (did I want to play Magic? Practice guitar? Argue about politics? Play flag football?). But the guys playing sports would still wave me down for flag football or basketball or whatever. My morning group was something like 2 cheerleaders, 3 goth kids, 2 nerdy girls, and 3-4 stoners, and whoever else showed up. It was usually "Whoever wound up hanging out at the bench where we always congregated in the morning." ...

"...And the whole popularity thing never rang true with me. I knew a pretty good cross-section of my class and nobody cared if they were popular. Going to a party was more "Hey, we can get drunk!" and not "Oh god I got invited to The Popular Kid's party!"...

"...There were a couple kids that were shunned and disliked, but they'd either done something to earn their reputation (hung out under the stairs trying to look up girls' skirts, trying to grope girls in the hallway, got caught masturbating in the bathroom and finished up, finally got expelled) or they were assholes."

- posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:01 PM on July 18

"Our "cool kids" were all top of their class, student body president types. The most competition was over whose GPA was highest, much less so about clothing or anything like that but then again most of the student body was at least upper middle class so that wasn't really a problem anyway.

"The cool kids were in multiple AP classes and held study groups and participated in multiple after school activities, for some perspective I graduated with a 4.1 GPA and I wasn't in the top 10% of my graduating class. There was also quite a bit of competition to see who could graduate with the largest number of community service hours (60 hours were required to graduate)."

- posted by magnetsphere at 4:55 PM on July 18

"Movies like 'Stand & Deliver' or "Freedom Writers" or even "To Sir with Love" do a better job capturing the conflicts students face in urban high schools TODAY than any John Hughes/Freaks & Geeks movie that focussed on social stratification.

"Students where I teach range from ones getting full Ivy League scholarships to ones that are in class with tracking bracelets on their ankle."

- posted by TDIpod at 7:54 PM on July 18

"One of the big differences between traditional media portrayals of high school and the way it was in my school had to do with race. The community where I grew up is extremely racially and ethnically diverse, and that carried over into the school. In movies/TV shows, the cliques tend to be pretty racially segregated, and if an interracial couple is featured, it's a Very Big Deal. It wasn't like that in my school at all. In fact, interracial dating was very common - nobody gave it a second thought."

- posted by SisterHavana at 9:40 PM on July 18

"I graduated in 2005 and a lot of current media about the high school experience seems stuck in an earlier time. In both my high school and college experiences, cheerleaders were considered silly, and the pretty girls who once might have cheered were all athletes, singers, etc. There was salacious gossip about gay people but no outright bullying. The most universally well-liked guy in my class was a short, bespectacled Asian pianist/chemistry whiz/libertarian/comedian who did really earnest things like organize an Elliott Smith memorial assembly. The recent remake of 21 Jump Street is a realistic and interesting portrayal of how many of today's high schools have evolved from the jocks-rule ethos depicted in most other films."

- posted by acidic at 11:09 AM on July 22

Anonymous said...

I have noted a pattern in humor among fellow individuals on the spectrum. From myself, to friends, to family members, to Hollywood portrayals. We tend to laugh at the absurd, the silly, any sudden incongruity. Many of the crude actors you mention are likely somewhere on the spectrum themselves, certainly Adam Sandler and the cast of the Flying Circus. We are drawn to them in my opinion, not distorted by them. As to behavior I agree that we must adhere to basic norms, but I disagree about the intent. The root of a great deal of depression and anguish relates directly to a believed false equivalence with society. We will never fit in on an instinctual level.