A new month means a new Smarty! July’s smart art is crayon lanterns which got me thinking about kids and television. Way off topic, but I’ll tie it in at the end (or at least try).
Do your children have favorite television shows or movies? My youngest loves, “The Hot Dog Dance” from Mickey Mouse Club House. He stands in front of the TV and begs for, “Ha Dahg.” He could care less about the show, but as soon as Mickey says, “Come on everybody, let’s do the Hot Dog Dance!” he makes a beeline to the TV. My oldest LOVES Jake and the Neverland Pirates and Tangled. She could watch them both for hours on end. We follow APA guidelines and limit screen time (TV, movies, computers, phones) to two hours a day max, but sometimes the glazed look in her eyes her rapt attention makes me concerned that even an hour or two is too much.
Television is a mixed blessing, especially for children with autism. It can lead to preservative interests and take up valuable learning and socialization time, but there are potential benefits too. TV shows and movies are a source of common experience for children (and adults…only one more season of How I Met Your Mother!?!) Movies and shows make good conversation topics and are an excellent source for pretend play ideas. The plot can serve as an initial play scenario and deviating from it or combining plotlines helps develop flexibility (See the Pretend Play and Role Taking and Sociodramatic Play lessons in Skills). Finding objects and places in your home to represent objects and places on the show is useful for developing symbolic and imaginary play skills (see the Symbolic Play, Imaginary Play, and Structure Building lessons in Skills).
Children can learn computer skills by playing games based on their favorite shows (see the Computer Play lesson in Skills). PBS Kids, Sprouts and Disney Jr. all offer free computer games that incorporate popular characters. Favorite characters can also be incorporated into other activities to make them more motivating. There is plenty of research demonstrating the motivational power of special interests in individuals with autism. Linking appropriate behavior to highly preferred / admired characters can increase a child’s interest and likely compliance to the appropriate behavior (one application of this concept is “Power Cards.”). For example, when toilet training I’ve written stories for children about how Thomas has to stop at the station or Lightening McQueen has to take a pit stop before getting back in the race.
Favorite characters / shows can be imbedded into activities to increase that activity’s reinforcing value. Arial stickers can be used for a token economy system or meals can be served on a Super Man plate. This strategy is especially useful for heightening interest in academic and art activities. Writing about a favorite character or coloring a picture of a favorite show increases interest and provides structure to an open ended activity. Aaaand we are back to July’s Smarty! For a long time my daughter was not a big fan of arts and crafts (See the Arts and Crafts Lesson in Skills). While some children love the messy fun and the exploration of open ended art projects, my daughter had no interest. One of the ways we increased her interest in art was to tie it into a holiday or favorite character. Once she started making concrete things she became more interested in making art. When I saw July’s Smarty video, I immediately thought of Rapunzel’s lanterns in Tangled. I know my daughter will love this activity. If the Smarty is a little too involved for your child, consider breaking it down into shorter projects – the wax paper makes a nice window decoration and cutting it provides a fine motor challenge. As an alternative to glue, play-doh and popsicle sticks are a fun and fast way to make 3D shapes (See the Shapes lesson and Clay Constructions lesson in Skills).
PS – I’ve had clients with zero interest in TV or an interest limited to shows that are not age appropriate. Because television is a suitable leisure activity for children and adults (see the Audio and Video Play lesson in Skills), it can be beneficial to teach children to watch brief periods of age-appropriate television. One strategy for introducing TV (or new shows / movies) is to watch brief clips. You Tube is a perfect source (and also a good source for finding a show that appeals to your child). Pick the part of the show that seems the most interesting to your child (e.g. the songs for my son) and watch only that part. If your child begins to enjoy watching the clip, gradually increase the length of the clip by adding time before the most preferred section. You can also introduce new shows by exposing children to the theme song, a character toy or a book first.