Television and Autism.

Casey was diagnosed in 2005. In 2006, a couple of researchers found a link between television watching and autism. They studied cable subscriptions and rainfall patterns in a couple of states. The places that had the highest amounts of precipitation also had correspondingly high amounts of autism. Though they didn’t have any data on the children’s TV habits during this time, they believed that those in rainy places probably watched more TV, and because of that, they were more likely to have autism.

The first time I had read this study I found myself nodding. “Yes! We live in Western Washington! It rains 300 days a year here!” The TV gave my son autism!

Casey and the TV

I used to joke that Baby Einstein was the cause and the cure to Casey’s autism.  It was easy to associate the compiled videos of various stims that is the Baby Einstein video series with the spinning and other stims Casey did in the short periods of time when he wasn’t watching one of the videos.  I used to give myself unending grief over the amount of time Casey watched TV.  By the time Casey was 21 months old, he was already a middle child. I was BUSY. I was stressed. Casey screamed for hours and hours a day. But he didn’t scream when the TV was on. So I turned it on.

I put him in Early Intervention, which consisted of a 3-hour-a-day preschool along with an hour of speech and occupational therapy a week. In addition to this, we put Casey into private speech therapy twice a week. He made progress in all of these things, but then this crazy thing started happening.

Our private speech therapist at the time was phenomenal. I think she provided the pathway for him to start talking, but the words he used, and continues to use, come MOSTLY from things he’s learned from watching TV.  There was something magical about the repetition of the sounds coming from an object rather than a person. People made Casey nervous. It was hard for him to get past that anxiety to actually learn what they were teaching.

But the TV was neutral. It didn’t force him to look him in the eyes, it was predictable (especially after he’d seen the show five million times), it was fast-paced, and it kept his attention. 

By the time Casey was 3, you could say, “The A says…” and he’d say “ah”, and could do this for the entire alphabet. This was before he was even calling me “Mom” and I had spent countless hours pointing his finger at me and saying “Mom, mom, mom.” (Maybe if I had just put it on a video…). From there, his speech came in spurts, and it was almost entirely verbatim from various shows he had watched.

It has been FASCINATING. He’s had this remarkable ability to use the speech he was “scripting” from the shows he watched into regular conversations. He just chose bits and pieces from different shows and used that to speak…correctly.  He still uses it.  He’s found his voice through the voices of Spongebob, The Little Einsteins, Phineas and Ferb, and lately the characters on BrainPop.  Casey has an amazing sense of humor, too. He’s able to relate with people at school because he’s seen it played out in front of him on TV. He’s been able to figure out how to tell jokes to make people laugh, and seen consequences of actions in a format where the consequence was concrete and immediate. It’s not that way in real life.

I’m not saying to turn the TV on and hope it cures your kids’ autism.  It doesn’t cure autism. What I am saying is to stop giving yourself grief over the amount of time your child watches TV. I wish I could have known the good it would do in Casey’s life. I would have spent much less time crying over what a bad mother I was and realize that I was doing something superfantastic for him.

29 thoughts on “Television and Autism.

  1. I do think for some kids with an ASD that it's like a script that they can play off of and also learn from. Not all of t.v. is good obviously but my Aspergers kid learns social expectations from watching characters on the t.v. The other day he says to me: "Mom, if you kiss a girl, and she doesn't like it, she'll slap you…" He saw it on the t.v. and had to tell me all about it! Yikes! What is he watching? I thought everything was blocked! Seriously he saw that on the Disney channel. Also when he was really little, numbers and letters. His moral code matches Kermit The Frogs. Kermit said play nice, so he played nice. Kermit said put on your shoes, so he put on his shoes. Do you know how many times I told him to play nice and put on his shoes?!!

  2. My son was recently diagnosed (like, 3 weeks ago!) and he is 6. He's very high functioning,he can communicate and is very bright… but he does have an unusual fascination with the TV. He can watch the same program over & over… he LOVES Animal Planet. He's VERY ''passionate'' about reptiles, snakes, fish, etc and he just loves absorbing all this info from his favorite programs I too believe he has learned to be ''funny'' from TV, I hadn't really made the connection before reading this post. Thank you so much! I have so much to learn, but this post made me feel a little bit better!!

  3. Wow. wow. wow. That's what I kept thinking as a I read this. Helene (who is a week away from turning 5) did/does the EXACT same thing. She watches shows and practically memorizes them. Then she will repeat the memorized portions, but in the right context, especially expressions of emotion. (The first time she said, "Oh, Mama, that's so sad!" at an appropriate moment, I almost fell out of my chair.) She even mimics the voices of the characters. (So, everything she learns from Peppa Pig has a seriously British accent.)I leave Nick, Jr. on all day, and I have no qualms about it. Helene seriously watches it for – all told – maybe on hour. Otherwise, it is the background noise of her life, through which she has absorbed a tremendous amount of contextual language that I don't think she would otherwise have acquired.I get a lot of flack from relatives, friends and even staff at school about how much television Helene watches, but I just nod politely, knowing I will keep on the way we've been going. You're right – it's not a cure – but it is a tool. Like any tool, when used the right way, it can be very, very valuable.

  4. Thank you for deleting my guilt! We have the tv on a lot – mostly because of my lazyness. I can get things done, when the little eyes prey on shaun the sheep or timmy time! Allso, statistically icecream causes drowning to death (summertime, swimming, icecram… Get the point?

  5. It's true. My girls absorb lots of social cues from television. They are also very interested in the tone of speech, and have grown to understand sarcasm and inflection through tv (and I guess I should take some credit for that part), which I find nearly unbelievable. The boob tube has definitely helped my girls more than it has hurt. I am glad that you put down your observations on this topic. Many moms worry about screen time so much because of this study or that study that is blaming tv for every disorder from ADHD to obesity. No one can know what works in your home but you, and our best judgment is the best we can do as parents.

  6. If it hadn't been for television, my daughter would have gone insane with Isabella's screaming. Thank you creators of Backyardigans!

  7. in total agreement over here. I think people get a little Nazi when it comes to TV–but i say if it works it works. My son doesn't have quite the attention span for a lot of TV, but he does pick up stuff–and from educational video games. I've got friends who are super strict about screen time, but not this mama.

  8. I wonder if it works for kids with Down syndrome. If I sit Kamdyn in front of the TV all day tomorrow, if she will start to talk ; ) No, but seriously, I see what you're saying about watching real life situations play out. If a child has trouble working through that in their own head, it would help to see how it should happen. And actually, I think that is a technique for teaching behavior. I think it's called video modeling, and it can also be used to teach tasks like making a sandwich.

  9. Im glad I read this! My son is 15 months old and he loves t.v. he always has. Nick Jr. or Sprout but the one show he never gets bored of it Bubble Guppies. I have felt bad for letting him watch so much t.v. but its what he likes. I can actually cuddle with him while I am in the floor watching with him. Once we turn the tv off he is so so grouchy. It does not matter if his eyes are even on the tube but his ears are!

  10. My kid adores TV – when he was 10 months old, he sat and watched every second of Ratatouille. Here's the deal in my head: our kids like predictability, and as you said, TV (especially ones you can repeat, via DVD or Netflix) provide that. So what if he learns language from it that is scripted? The key is functionality – can they use it functionally? If the answer is yes, screw where it came from (or that you might be repeating yourself a majillion times a day for your lines). See also: kids with ASD tend to be visual learners (a majority of them, not the whole). O is also a hyperlexic, and taught himself to use "words on" (closed captioning) to truly understand what he's watching. BAM. That's progress, baby. Coping mechanisms, for the win.

  11. keep it on! For crying out loud, if something is helping, let it help! We really need to stop giving ourselves a bad time over this. It works! It's a tool, just like anything else. My kids hate Bubble Guppies. We use it to tease Peyton with. Granted, they are all 5+ years older, but it's still fun…

  12. We use this at school sometimes we will video the student doing the appropriate social interaction and then they watch themselves doing that action a few times each day. It has been helpful. Very similar to picture scripts just on video

  13. I kind of love you for this post, too. In fact, I'm quite sure I love you more for this post than lazymazei does. She doesn't have what this post and I have together. She's just the other woman!

  14. Sprout – "it's like preschool on tv". Or is that Nick Jr? Either way we're covered. They're both on at least 15 hours a day at our house, with a few Signing Time episodes thrown in around dinnertime! I don't think Max can play without the tv on as background noise.

  15. I can really relate!! Some days when my son is in meltdown mode all the time i just put him in front of the tv and he finally relaxes. And he learns also a lot from tv, mostly shows like Sesame Street and disney movies. Funny that kids with autism almost can't do without the tv! Great invention!

  16. Tell me about it. Madeline knows more Spanish than I do after taking it in high school. Actually I know more Spanish now after listening to Dora insistently She enjoys T.V. so what lol? I'm totally with you girl.

  17. I feel bad sometimes about the amount of TV my kids watch. But then, my son started to associate characters outside of the TV, like Elmo and the Cars dudes. So I can get him to pay attention to a book a lot better now. And he's starting to associate "real" things with what's on TV; he'll sign dog when he sees one on TV, will actually carry out projects/pretend play if he's seen them on a show, etc etc etc. AND it helps us with transitioning coming home and ending meltdowns. So eff anyone who may judge any of us for letting our little ones watch some Nick Jr or PBS Kids. Let's just buy some ear plugs or teach Dora to sing some Beyonce, though, before I go batshizz crazy.

  18. Casey sounds a lot like my son. Danny's speech was delayed and when he did start talking, it was almost all from movies he'd seen. Then, eventually, he started changing the lines a bit to fit the situation. He still does it everyday and he's almost 9. I used to hate it–anytime he'd say something from a movie, I'd wonder if we should limit his screen time more. Thing is, we limited it a lot as it was. Now, I just laugh at the funny phrases and the way he is able to extrapolate them into situations he's in.He learns so much from movies and computer games–it's crazy.

  19. Thank you for this post! I have secretly regretted the TV he watched as an infant for years, (i went and bought alot of those baby einstein toys in the videos) but your story above is almost my story, exactly! Now that my kids are 6 and 8, I STILL put backyardigans on if they start talking fresh, since it reminds them how we should talk to one another! They complain but then get sucked in still. (It works, wipes out the icarly nonsense) I wish the older kid shows had an ounce of the good behavior that the kid shows did. We just started the Brady Bunch series from the library, I hope that helps them be nice.

  20. Amen!! I saw that article years ago too. And we literally threw the TV away. BAD IDEA! Yes, she learned to live without TV, but it didn’t contribute to her progress and we had to hire babysitters just to get laundry done. Don’t give yourself grief over TV. That study was well intentioned, but just plain WRONG!

  21. It’s probably not at the top of most moms’ pride moments, but the first time Iain took a joke from a tv show and accurately applied it to a similar but not identical situation in real life made me cry. That takes a set of skills to make that leap. It shouldn’t be overlooked. And when he actually got the more complicated jokes in Phineas and ferb…true delight. Sarcasm and wit are not far behind.

  22. oh geez, N used to SCREAM if we turned tv off – like he would be in the garden or asleep and he would come in/wake up and scream blue murder because we had turned it off – we had 12hr stints of thomas the tank engine or whatever his current obsession was. and he wasn’t watching it a lot but it had to be on. even now at 6 his expectation is that the TV be on most of the day and that it be on ‘kids shows’ all that time. we do get some tv free time but only if the tv is already off when he comes in the room.
    Our Early Intervention specialist and Speech Therapist were really interested in his speech patterns – he basically learnt phrases and then adapted them rather than the traditional learning words and putting them together into phrases. He comes home from school with new phrases and they are very much teacher talk ‘are you happy now’ ‘look at my eyes’ ‘shouldn’t you be doing ______’ I think he will always script, I am just glad that he seems able to adapt and personalise those scripts to fit his own needs/life. he even includes himself in his complete repetition of TV show plots. so long as he learns to respond to people talking to him fairly appropriately and express himself I’m happy.

  23. Hi! How I have never seen your blog before…I haven’t a clue. But I am so glad I found you. I have DS and ASD in my family, too…however, they are both the diagnosis of my daughter. One kid, both Dxes. It’s a riot! 🙂

    Anyhow, my G scripts too! She even has the same British accent as Angelina Ballerina. I think it’s actually quite brilliant.

    Look forward to reading more! 🙂

  24. Our OT told us that TV was a GOOD thing – it provides a sensory break (my son has Aspergers) and we shouldn’t feel guilty about it. I said SING IT, SISTER. And then tossed my parental guilt out the fricking window!

  25. My son has similar echolalia-ish tendencies to repeat everything he’s heard on tv (which is why I’m SO careful as to WHAT he watches) or in movies. Oh boy. It can drain you but it is cool to hear them use the script in real life conversations (or semi-convos. I wouldn’t say we’ve had a real convo yet). I hope he just finds someone as interested in superheroes as he is…

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