The J-Man has a tendency to want to watch the same episode of the same TV show over and over again. I imagine this is not an earth-shattering concept to many of you, and it’s not for us either. But I got to pondering why, looking for something beyond the more obvious.
It’s also not earth-shattering news that autistic kids often engage in many kinds of repetitive behaviors and prefer to repeat familiar activities. I’m sure this plays an important role in why he likes chain-watching the same episode over and over. I believe there’s a lot more to it than just that, though.
To an outsider, this sort of behavior may seem ‘non-functional’. (Hey, I think we’ve talked about supposedly ‘non-functional’ behaviors not long ago!) There certainly are many situations in which watching the same TV show over and over again may very well be little more than an occasion to zone out. However, I’m going to argue that there are conditions in which it’s not only functional but possibly a critical component to a child’s learning, autistic or not.
For what it’s worth, here’s my current thought on this issue. I believe there’s a much more specific point to his supposedly ‘non-functional’ repetitive behavior in watching and rewatching the same show. I think he’s practicing the content of the show in his head until he feels comfortable demonstrating outwardly what he’s learned. He often begins this process by watching a show in a manner that to an observer would seem passive. At some point he moves into this outward expression of concepts slowly, intermittently, and often subtly at first, but usually he’s pretty quick to get to where he consistently does it well. Like I said, it seems like he rehearses inwardly until he’s almost sure he’s ‘got it’.
For the J-Man, he particularly likes watching the same episode of Signing Time – an amazing, special needs-friendly series that teaches children American Sign Language and reading and language skills – and most recently Yo Gabba Gabba over and over. He’d probably watch an episode a half-dozen times in a row – at least – if we let him. However, it’s worth noting that the specific episode he wants to watch eventually changes, and the cycle begins again.
Here’s why I think what he’s doing has an important function to it.
* He is usually engaging with the program, first by watching intently, then interacting with it in some constructive manner (sometimes a lot, sometimes not as much, but he keeps a relatively high level of focus regardless), and involving us in some way, typically by using words, verbal approximations, or a few signs and expecting us to repeat them back to him.
* He displays greater comprehension of what’s in the episode over time. This is a very gradual process, but his assimilation of the material does increase the more he watches it. This strikes me as the very definition of practice.
* Whatever pieces of the episode that may cause him sensory (almost always auditory) distress seem to cause fewer issues over multiple watchings. It’s like he’s actively trying to work through this distress.
* This is similar to what he’s done often in the past. As a baby and young toddler, he just suddenly did things he seemingly couldn’t do before. There were any number of things we never saw him do at first. We’d just turn around and he’d done it. For example, it took us forever to catch him rolling over and sitting up. We’d turn around, and there he was rolled over or sitting up. He didn’t walk unsupported until he was 22 months old, but once he started, he was running around the house within two days. It’s like he has to organize everything in his head first before he does it in ‘real life’.
* Just as suddenly as he started wanting to watch an episode repeatedly, he often stops being interested in it. Typically this only happens after he’s started demonstrating multiple concepts he’s learned from it. Perhaps it’s because he’s gotten all he can from it for now. At this point, he moves on to another. This interest period typically lasts roughly 1-3 weeks.
Given that communication is one of his greatest challenges – and understandably one of the most frustrating for him – we look for more relaxed ways to help him practice communication. I think after a while he gets tired of being asked to interact with real-life people – most of us do! – so something two-dimensional like a TV screen or electronic gadget of some kind may prove a welcome respite for him. It’s hard to tell sometimes, but it seems that way just from what we can glean from his non-verbals and general mood.
I’ve been pondering these theories about this for a while now, but I’ve been skeptical of it for a long time because of my hesitancy to believe that TV is ever that great for kids (other than to give parents a break for a bit!). I still think for the most part that TV – of either the kid or adult flavor – is crap, but that’s another story. There are a few programs I think make a difference, though.
I’ve become much more convinced that the J-Man is learning a lot this way because of how amazingly far Dale Jr. has progressed in his development watching Signing Time and Pinky Dinky Doo with us. We do try to make it a family activity, though I confess sometimes we turn it on just so we can get a few minutes to eat or go to the bathroom.
Anyway, Dale Jr. just turned two recently. Right now he can: verbally identify almost all upper and lowercase letters (in a variety of fonts too), recognize and verbally label 8-10 colors with little or no prompting, identify God knows how many animals and objects (macaw!?), draw from a working vocabulary of probably a couple hundred words, talk in phrases and basic sentences and engage in some basic conversation, do all this in a variety of contexts (generalization!), read some words (he loves the J-Man’s written schedule board), and use more sign language than I can. Now given our family history, I wouldn’t know ‘typical’ development if it jumped up and bit me, so I’ve asked around, and everyone has told us that this is highly unusual at 24 months. Feel free to correct us if we’re wrong.
Rather than some non-functional, mind-numbing experience, I think this practice is really helping both our kids. The J-Man’s speech skills have increased tremendously of late. I’m not at all advocating dumping your kids in front of the TV all day every day. I’m inclined to think there are very few TV programs with which extended viewing would be appropriate regardless. However, I am starting to believe that using this approach with certain programs as part of a broader plan of, for example, developing verbal and reading skills can absolutely work.
We’re specifically convinced that Signing Time has been instrumental in helping our kids with word recognition, communication skills, and reading. The way they both interact with the show is quite amazing, and they, each in their own way, use those skills in other contexts during the day. We reinforce those skills all through the day in as many ways as we can.
I don’t want to turn this into a lovefest for Signing Time even though I think it’s deserved. Both kids also love Pinky Dinky Doo, which I think may be the most autism-friendly program on TV with all its structure. They’ve picked up tons from it, too. Very recently, they’ve both been really into Yo Gabba Gabba. I can see why Dale Jr. loves it because it’s so movement-oriented, music-based, and silly. I was astonished, though, that the J-Man enjoys watching it and even requests it verbally! If you’ve seen it, it’s not necessarily the most sensory-chill show in the world. It’s honestly kinda trippy. We’re still trying to discern what the J-Man is getting out of it, but when he requests something verbally and consistently, there’s something he’s working on. I’m convinced of this.
So what does this all mean? I do think structured kids’ shows that offer some level of engagement and that stimulate areas your child is working on (e.g., speech and communication, movement/imitation) can be worthwhile. I believe they can offer a lower-key way for autistic children to learn without all the extra energy it takes to interact with people socially. Therein also lies the caution. I see these TV shows as a complement only. The J-Man gets sometimes 9 hours or more of learning, therapy, and social time a day on weekdays. That’s a lot of people time, and socializing can be so draining.
If you set up TV watching times as opportunities for learning and skills reinforcement, I certainly believe it can work well for your child. As with everything else, think about it in context with the rest of the activities you and your team of educators, therapists, family, and friends are doing and how it fits in with your overall learning and developmental goals for your child. TV is simply a tool and a resource, and tools used wisely and for the right purpose can make a big difference.
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