Movies/DVDs/Television and Autism
by: Carol Jimenez
Isn't it amazing how autism affects every aspect of home and community life? Who would think that you might have to teach a child that movies can be entertaining? Some kids with autism do not enjoy seeing movies or DVDs or television shows that they are not familiar with. They might cry or scream, or run away. They might also only accept movies related to specific characters, like Thomas the Train, or Dora the Explorer.
Does that mean that my child will never be able to enjoy educational television such as sesame street; movies like Toy Story and Cars? Well... no, it doesn't. There are strategies that you can incorporate into the process of seeing new things on television and watching new movies.
For these strategies, I am assuming that the behaviors arise from anxiety that comes primarily from the fear of the unknown? Perhaps more so with some specific aspect of television or movies.
What's going to happen next?
Will there be loud noises, high voices, unexpected scene changes?
Who are the characters?
What do they look and sound like? Are they predictable?
What about all of that loud soundtrack music and crazy sound effects in the background?
Will the music start, change or get louder unexpectedly?
Is this real or pretend?
Those are real people. Are they really flying?
Let's assume that all of the above can have a negative impact on a child's experience of new television shows or movies. How can we do anything about that, other than force him to sit and watch a new movie, so that he will know that there is nothing to be afraid of, and he might just like it.
Sadly, I've seen parents do exactly that with the support of their ABA therapist, as the child cried in anguish. Trust me, they won't like it, or enjoy the movie experience this way. You would only be forcing the child to continue to experience whatever it is that makes new television and movies so upsetting. Further, you won't discover what aspect(s) of the experience stimulate the negative response.
Isn't there a better way? Oh yeah, there is.
Here are some successful strategies for introducing new television shows and movies to your child in a more positive, less stress invoking way. Let's address the possible problems one by one.
Choose a movie that you know well, or get to know a movie well.
What's going to happen next?
Buy some character toys. Disney Pixar's Cars and Toy Story are popular, inexpensive, readily available examples.
Act out part of a scene (30 seconds to a minute) cover the picture screen with a towel and use the sound only. That way you are addressing one sensory input at a time. Don't be concerned if your child doesn't join in or notice what you're doing the first, or the first few times. It's the repetition that matters.
Repeat the exercise with the picture on and the sound off. Use subtitles if available. I recommend always using subtitles when available, as it creates a continuous, moving example of pairing written words with pictures, thereby teaching comprehension of the spoken word (when the sound is on), and to some extent, a visual representation of language patterns. There is no way you could create anything like that with printed materials alone.
Once the child is familiar with the scene, put both together. Add supports. Draw pictures; read the movie book; listen to the soundtrack on CD.
During this exercise, you may discover which aspect of television or movie watching is causing the most anxiety. Personally I think that the process of preparing a child for any new experience gives them the confidence and a sense of security that you, the parent, are in complete control of what is going to happen, and that they can count on you to be there to guide them through it. You are building trust and confidence.
Who are the characters ideas?
Start the movie watching experience by introducing the characters.
Read the movie book, or play with the toys, introducing the characters by name.
Soundtrack music and sound effects ideas.
Turn the sound off, or keep the volume very low until your child has confidence that the movie won't abruptly start blaring; or play the sound separately from the picture. You might allow the child to adjust the volume.
Real or Pretend?
Teach your child the difference by identifying things around the home that are real and compare them to things that are pretend. Such as holding a doll and saying, "pretend", and touching your child and saying, "real". Optional phrasing, "pretend, not real", "real, not pretend". Other phrases to use while introducing a television show or movie are:
Picture and sound on.
Picture and sound off.
Ultimately your child can learn to use these phrases (verbally or with icons) to request the best television or movie experience for them.