With the rise in technology and accessibility, most of our homes are filled with video devices. We have TVs, tablets, iPads, smart phones, computers, and touch screen everything. Although there has not been any conclusive studies, early educators and medical professionals are pointing fingers at the abundance of these devices for the cause of autism, and speech and cognitive delays. When my son was diagnosed, like any good mom, I was bombarded with feelings of intense guilt for letting my son watch Winnie the Pooh a millions times. I mean it was his favorite, but I was afraid that I had inadvertently caused his delays.
Lots of therapy and wine later, I realized as a child of the 80s, all I did was watch cartoons. Sure I played outside too, but I loved cartoons. And I didn’t have any delays. I sighed relief and decided not to throw out all of our gadgets and move to a cabin in the woods.
My son is Autistic, with or without technology. Since we don’t have any official studies, all I can do is share with you how I’ve used TV and YouTube as a tool for learning and coping with his environment.
For the rest of my life I’ll never understand how this became a thing, but unboxing videos have been a blessing in my house. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing these, it’s basically some guy opening toys and then playing with them. It’s weird. But for my son, he was getting to see tons of different toys and how to play with them appropriately. For his favorite videos, I found the same toys (usually the Melissa & Doug brand) and we would “act out” the video. Once he had a script for using the toy, he had a purpose to explore it. This led to a natural progression of pretend play, a difficult concept for many children on the spectrum.
Watching the same video over and over led to my son repeating entire YouTube episodes like they were the lyrics of a song. He would memorize everyone’s line and corresponding action and often act it out around the house. Called “scripting”, many of his first 2-word phrases were just lines from different videos. After careful evaluation with our speech teacher, we felt confident that although he wasn’t actually talking to us, he was still practicing language. Eventually he started using his scripting phrases in real word, appropriate situations which revealed his understanding of the phrases.
Learning Colors, Letters, and Numbers
I work hard at being a super entertaining mom, but no one can beat a cute puppy singing songs about the alphabet, or a silly guy in bowtie and glasses singing about construction vehicles. A lot of the shows my son watches explore letters, colors, and numbers in a captivating way. Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, learning with Mommy feels like work. These entertaining characters on TV are just fun to watch and the learning is then incidental.
Ok this one might raise some eyebrows, but I feel it’s important to mention. There was a time when my son needed to have the TV and the tablet on, all day long. They didn’t have to be playing the same show, but they absolutely both needed to be on or raging fits would ensue. I wasn’t sure if he was hyper-focusing or if he was tuning out the world, but I was worried that if I continued to allow this behavior, he would get stuck. I spoke with our special education teacher, who always had a brilliant perspective of situations after asking tons of questions. We realized that this behavior started right before he got a really nasty cold – his sensory processing issues made even the smallest sniffle completely unbearable for him. The cold lasted for about a week, and then from not having an appetite and refusing his constipation medicine, his poor tummy was in knots. So it appeared as though he was using the devices to help keep his mind off of how awful he felt. He was using these as a distraction, for self-regulation. As the weeks went by and he started to feel better, he naturally started to play more and I was able to turn off the TV and the tablet.
Everything In Moderation
Of course, we make sure that he’s using TV and the tablet for fun and for learning, but we also make sure he’s not using it to completely block out the world around him. The tablet is on almost all day, but it’s become like background noise for the most part. He’ll go back to it when he’s eating a snack or needs a rest after a lot of jumping and running around, but he’s not constantly engaged in the electronics. When that does happen, however, we use redirection techniques to help him engage with us and toys so he doesn’t get “stuck”.
Sometimes Mommy Is Out Of Ideas And Just Needs To Drink Her Coffee
Seriously, we do A LOT. School, playgrounds, shopping, chasing, jumping, puzzles, play-doh, living room dance party. And sometimes mommy stayed up too late the night before because it was the once chance she had all week to get some time to herself, and she’s super tired, and doesn’t feel like jumping on the bed right now because this coffee is hot and you love Moana so that’s watch we’re gonna watch and it’s totally fine and we can play later and here have this snack and let’s just sit and watch the movie in peace.
**I also want to acknowledge the parents with older children who have become increasingly dependent on their devices. Many of these children do not have the ability to cope without their device and it’s an exhausting and heartbreaking experience for both child and parents. Since my son is a toddler, most of my posts are about the therapies and techniques I’ve used with success for his age group. From other parents I know, replacement and transition techniques can help older children reduce their dependence on devices. For more information, please contact your school or local Occupational Therapy program to start your child in an IEP program**
Previously posted at Hudson Valley Parent Magazine.
*If you have any concerns about your child, please discuss with their pediatrician or contact your local school district or Early Intervention center for an evaluation.*