STUMP » Articles » Can Disney Films Teach Social Skills? » 13 March 2014, 13:29

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Can Disney Films Teach Social Skills?  


13 March 2014, 13:29

meep sent me the following article – Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney – and it got me thinking.

Short answer – yes, but not just Disney films.

Like the Susskinds, it was a hard hit from life for us when we were told that D. was “on the Autism Spectrum.” We also adapted and do everything we can for our now-7-year-old son.

Just as no two people are alike, the son in the article, Owen, and our son, D., are different in their disabilities. D. had no language loss — because he didn’t have language skills to lose. He spoke rarely but always sang songs he loved. D. didn’t withdraw from the world and has always been loving, cuddly and interested in any adult who gives him attention. I can go on but let’s focus on a commonality between the two. They love videos.

D. loves lots of video material from music videos to movies. He prefers animation or musicals, and he loves animated musicals. Disney fits the bill well. They’ve a good catalog to choose from & more. Mr Susskind explains it better than I can:

…what draws kids like Owen to these movies is something even more elemental. Walt Disney told his early animators that the characters and the scenes should be so vivid and clear that they could be understood with the sound turned off. Inadvertently, this creates a dream portal for those who struggle with auditory processing, especially, in recent decades, when the films can be rewound and replayed many times.

If I were to plagiarize the above, other than exchanging D. for Owen, I would change ‘auditory processing’ to ‘social comprehension’. A few other phrases come to mind so insert your own and join me in mentally plagiarizing Mr. Susskind’s wonderful observation.

Okay, fun’s over.

Why all the fuss? There are various tools and methods of helping and reaching these children. One is modeling, which is done by either a therapist, a story script or a video. Each child responds differently to each type of modeling. D. responds best to video modeling with the other types not being very effective. Our theory is that a video is always the same, precisely the same, every time. No unpredictability. No typical human can be that precise. Not actors nor opera singers. They’ll come close but the performances will never be precisely the same as previous or later ones.

That sameness, that precision, is something children like our son can do very well. One non-verbal child I know from waiting for D. at his therapy gets to play a game on an iPhone when he’s behaved well at school. When he hasn’t, no iPhone, but that doesn’t stop him from enjoying a game. One day reading an email I heard his game going. I look over to his mom and comment, “He had a good day at school. That’s great.” His mom holds up the iPhone and with a frustrated look on her face replies, “No, he tantrumed and had to be removed from class to calm down.” I look at him, his hands are held out in front of him holding an invisible iPhone with thumbs madly pressing its screen. The sounds he’s making are indistinguishable from the real game. That ability to precisely recreate experiences, whether inborn or learned, is where their comprehension starts.

Unfortunately, comprehension of precision doesn’t help them reach out or reconcile their world vs. ours. It took Owen’s parents, and eventually professionals, to help him merge two worlds into a new one. Had they stuck with the status quo, the results would most likely have been less than they were. We need to learn from the Susskinds example to keep an open mind, to be observant and double check our observations.

No one has yet fully proven the cause or causes of autism nor one best approach to help mitigate, remediate the effects of it. Those suffering with autism need to be looked at and treated more on an individual basis, not with what’s worked for the past 20 successes out of 60 patients treated, but what works for them, even if it’s a Disney Film or ‘gasp’ Spongebob.

The other film companies that teach social skills, you ask? In our house, Veggie Tales and Pixar, pre-Disney and now. If you look around carefully, you’ll find a few more.