Thursday, April 26, 2012

Operation: Blackout - On Autism and TV

No, it's not a plan for me to unplug from the internet, fast from Facebook and Twitter and focus entirely on writing with no connection to the outside world.  Would be wonderful if I could do that, but in order to do so, I'd have to take off for a week and live in a cabin with no internet access.  We do that once a year when we vacation in the Adirondacks every summer, so that time's coming soon enough.

Actually, I'm talking about how much television we let the kids watch.   Don't get me wrong: I'm not one of those "all television is BAD and kids shouldn't watch it, ever" type of guy.  Honestly, I don't get those hardline folks.  I'm very much in line with C.S. Lewis' adage: "Enjoy all things in moderation."  My parents set limits on my sister and I, there were times to do things, and times when certain things weren't allowed.  But things weren't FORBIDDEN or BANNED like I see some folks do with their kids.

To clarify, there are some SHOWS I don't let the kids watch, simply because they're not ready for them.  Sponge-Bob, for one. My students look at me like I'm crazy when I tell them that, because they love Sponge-Bob, think it's hilarious.  Then I say to them: "Hey, you're sixteen, and you find it hilarious.  To me, that means my seven and five year old probably shouldn't watch it."

Anyway, my guiding light for shows my kids should watch is twofold:

1. age appropriateness
2. narrative format

The first one is a no-brainer.  On one hand, I certainly don't want to inhibit my kids' growth and have them remain childlike longer than they should. But Madi is seven and Zack is five.  They should act as seven and five year olds. Ergo, they should only ingest material appropriate for seven and five year olds. 

The second (well, the first, too) really requires a parent to sit down and watch television with their kids.  Any show that's age appropriate and engages in a narrative format gets the green-light in this house.  And what I mean by that are television shows that engage in classic storytelling.  With characters, conflicts, resolutions, and morals at the end. So, for example, shows high on my list for the kids are:

1. Little Bear
2. Thomas the Train
3. Little Einsteins
4. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse
5. Franklin
6. Blue's Clues (with Steve, because Joe sucks)
7. Little Bill
8.Max and Ruby
9. Wonderpets
10. Wow-wow Wubzi
11. Octonaughts
12. Jake and the Neverland Pirates

...and a few more.  Of course, you gotta have those shows that are funny and hilarious, and Phineas and Ferb rocks the vote for me, on that one. Plus, Madi's just getting into classic 'toons on the HUB channel: G. I. Joe, Transformers, and JEM, and those are harmless, and ironically enough, have pretty decent "moral centers" to them.

But, we've decided we need to start turning the television off more.  Over the summer this happens a lot.  Abby's working, Zack is still in school, and Madi and I are out and about doing things.   But in the winter the television is probably on more than it should be, and even with the nice weather coming, we've decided that after bath, before bedtime every night, we should turn off the television, play some music or audio stories, and not watch TV.

Turns out, this is something we've needed to do for a real long time.  Madi adapts quite nicely to it.  And actually, I think she prefers turning the TV off before bedtime. She colors, plays with her toys, finds plenty of things to do.  It's Zack that has trouble.  He's really struggling because he simply doesn't know what to do with himself with the hour and a half of no television.

Which is kind of a wake-up call, for me.  Madi transitions well between things now, and she eventually gets bored of television.  With the TV off, Zack simply can't decide what to do.

Part of this is his autism, which is also partly why we're enacting the blackout.  Lately, he's been feeding off certain shows - even the good ones - and doing nothing but reenacting them.  Almost to the point in which his personality is subsumed by these shows, severely limiting his communication ability.

And that, of course, is the core issue of autism: communication.  There's lots of other things attached to autism, but the inability to communicate needs and wants is the hardest thing about autism to manage. And the fact that Zack gets....lost, for lack of a better word...in these stories and shows is a little scary.

Maybe you're thinking I'm making too big a deal of this, but unless you're a parent of an autistic child or know someone with autism, you just don't understand.  When Zack goes into his "Blue's Clues" or "Fresh Beat Band" zone...it's like he's not even  there.  That someone has scooped his personality out, and replaced it with a recording of this show.  His eyes glaze over, his face goes slack, and he's nothing but a walking recording of whatever show he's "stimming" off that day.

Scary.

Trust me.

So, Operation Blackout.  Hopefully, by limiting his media input before bed, we can cut back on his "stimming", as they call it.  Of course, turning off the television means we have to actually do stuff with them...but that's another blog post for another time...