Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Kids' Television Shows and Asperger's

The PBS show "Arthur" did an episode last year that introduced a character with Asperger's syndrome. I think this character was on just once. The episode was titled "When Carl Met George." They did an amazing job depicting Asperger's Syndrome. In fact, other than "The Big Bang Theory" (where the writers claim that Sheldon doesn't have Asperger's), it's the best depiction of Asperger's I've seen on television! They show Carl as being extremely smart, but having unusual quirks, such as having meltdowns over what appears to be minor things. Carl's mother explains his behavior to his new friend, George. Telling George all about Asperger's Syndrome. She covers a lot of information!

However, I am a bit horrified that this topic was covered so explicitly. The target audience for Arthur is ages 4-8, according to the PBS Parents' website. Was it really necessary to explain Asperger's to this age range? Personally, I think a show that handled the broader issue of how some kids are different and appreciating these differences would have been a more age-appropriate approach, while still imparting a wonderful message.

We are not ready for our daughter to know about her autism or Asperger's. We've boxed away all of our books on this topic. We keep any papers with the words "autism" or "Aspeger's" out of her sight. The last thing we need is for her to watch this episode of "Arthur" and to have a big AHA moment. Also, I'm not sure I want her peers to be educated on this topic yet and to make the connection with my daughter. At school. That would be just peachy.

So now, not only do I have to constantly check the DVR queue to be sure I delete this episode when it comes up, I also have to hope and pray that my daughter doesn't view the entire episode on the PBS website. Because it's posted there. That's how I watched it.

Another PBS kids' show that doesn't address Asperger's but is clearly geared to kids on the spectrum is called "Dinosaur Train," which covers two common areas of obsession for kids on the spectrum--dinosaurs and trains. My daughter recently discovered this program through the PBS website and absolutely adores it. I watched one episode and was amazed at it also. While the PBS Parents' website says that this show is geared to preschoolers, they certainly can't be accused of talking down to them. The show teaches about a variety of dinosaurs, using the full, scientific names. They also discuss which of the three mesozoic periods the dinosaurs come from (Triassic, Jurassic, or Cretaceous). The train has the ability to travel through time tunnels that span through these three periods.

As if this weren't enough to excite a child on the spectrum, they have the world's least charismatic paleontologist, Dr. Scott Sampson, to give additional information about the species of dinosaur that was covered. At least I hope he's the least charismatic. If he's the most charismatic....the thought is too horrifying! They also stress that a lot of information is not known for sure, but are hypothesized. They throw that word around quite a bit.

Really? Three and four year old kids were the target audience for this show? Maybe they do love it, I don't know. I do know that this show probably attracts a huge viewership from kids on the spectrum.

I'm just saying!


  1. My 3 year old loves dinosaur train and he's not on the spectrum, just loves trains and dinosaurs. I think a lot of pre-schoolers go through that. My 6 year old did and my nephew did too when he was small.

  2. at the library, we met a 3 year old girl who adores that show and knows all about the dinosaurs but she is not and didn't seem autistic but i can see where you are coming from too since that is what i thought too. trains and dinosaurs are sterotypical aspergerian interests.

    anyway. I guess i am opposite. i wanted my sons's teacher to talk to the class more about it than she did. I want my son to know why he acts different and that its ok and I want others around him to know also. He knows he has aspergers. I think it helps rather than hurts the situation. JMO though.

  3. I was at a Asperger's Parent meeting the other night, and we had a brief discussion at the end, on the topic of when to talk to your child about his/her diagnosis. I think we all would have liked more time to discuss this more thoroughly. Some felt that it was best to wait, while others have been freely discussing it with their child right from the beginning. I have been somewhere in the middle: I didn't want my daughter to put too much emphasis on a label or to think that it was an excuse to get out of doing things. It turns out that she knew more than I realized. She's 10 right now, but has been aware of her Asperger's for the last year and a half. We have recently had some discussions about what Asperger's means and how it affects her daily life.

    I understand what you are saying about introducing the topic to such a young audience. I think that it is becoming a topic that society in general is realizing needs more attention.

  4. That's interesting. My younger child is the target audience here and he would probably say "WOW, that's just like my brother!" since we've never had the discussion, because I think he's still too young for it

  5. That is very interesting Cheryl. Seems odd to go into detail about Aspergers on a children's show and I can see how that makes you worry about your daughter having that Aha moment.

    I never thought about Dinosaur train that way. Interesting. My son used to love that show (at age 4). He still has quite the fascination with trains.

  6. We are lucky, in a way, because when my son (now 13) was that age, autism was not a widespread topic like it is now. To this day we haven't really had a full-on discussion with him about autism and we are not entirely sure if he knows that he is autistic or what that means.

  7. I, too, have thought differently about it I guess- and maybe it's because B has a brother only 18 months ahead of him that clearly knows something is different- come on, his brother is six and barely talks and is now repeating kindergarten. But I don't think I talk about it too much directly to Brian- but I very openly talk about it with his peers when they ask their innocent questions about why B is different.

    But my son's autism is also much more markedly noticeable than most children with aspergers- that could bea huge difference.

  8. I've never seen or heard of that Arthur episode...that is sort of weird. I wouldn't necessarily assume that Dinosaur Train is geared towards ASD kids. Now if they come out with something called Escalator Junction then you might have a case...

  9. I think you are wise, Cheryl, not to talk to your daughter about Asperger's as yet. She is too young to understand and I don't think it would accomplish very much.

    My two year old grandson loves dinosaurs and trains...don't all little boys? I know my son did at his age.

  10. X also loves dinosaur train! Both are common obsessions for most kids!

  11. I agree that it should not have been so explicit. My son is 6 and I am not even ready to broach the topic of telling him about his Autism.

    I have not heard of Dinosaur Train! I am going to have to check that one out.

    Great post.

  12. Having one on the spectrum and 3 that are not- I can tell you that Dino Train is not about the spectrum. My 2 and 4 year old love it and it cracks me up to hear my 4 almost 5 year old use the correct words! I think maybe I may be the odd ball out here. I would love nothing better then for my son's friends to know who he really is and how he works. I would love nothing more than for the parents of said friends be able to understand how my son's work in order to help his friends better accept him. My son is 7 and I think would love to be able to show that episode to his friends to show them that while he may be different he can still be a good friend (he is very sensitive to the fact that the kids in his class steer clear of him) I am curious to know why you don't want your daughter to have an aha moment. I have to say I agree with Kim from above. The more others know the more of a connection they can make with our children. As for Trains and Dinos... I don't think it is Autism I think it is testosterone driven : )

  13. I don't think my daughter has a lot of testosterone! LOL! Okay, I stand corrected on Dinosaur Train (although my daughter is, well, a girl and 6 years old, so I do think it's a spectrummy thing for her).

    Now, regarding the Arthur episode...I do not stand corrected on that. The fact that other families are more public with their child's diagnosis with their peers is great for them. Everyone has to do what they feel is appropriate for their situation. I'm just hoping the "Arthur" episode doesn't step on our toes regarding the decision that we feel is appropriate for us.

    While I laud them for doing an excellent job in depicting Asperger's, I still think they could have gotten their wonderful message across by being less specific. And I think they would have benefited MORE special needs kids by doing so! (and again, their target audience is 4-8 year olds).

    It is up to the individual families on when and how they divulge this information.

    In our case, why are we putting it off? My daughter's been doing amazing! There was a time, we didn't think we'd need to tell her anything at all because we thought she was going to be off the spectrum some day. Actually, I still am hopeful! I'm hoping when the time comes, I'll be able to stick to specific areas she's different about without having to put a label on it. I'm sure when the time comes, I'll know it. I just don't want it to be because of something she saw on a television show aimed at little kids.

  14. You are a very wise woman Cheryl! Thank you for this reflective post. I read this a few days ago with my Bb, but couldn't respond. I wanted to share that my 3yr old LOVES, loves, loves dinosaur train! She gets it and the vocabulary may be over her head, it certainly not detrimental. I think the socialization that is so well developed on the show is wonderful, and it is so well developed. I never saw it representative of the spectrum at all, but certainly is a VERY good program for so many with such needs and interests. :)

    As for Arthur, I haven't seen this show, but I agree with your sentiments. I have frequently wondered about the impact the "label" and/or awareness of the possible stigma on their developing psyches.

  15. I found this article because I've been watching Dinosaur Train with my kids, and I was wondering if Don is special needs. I was thinking he might have down syndrome, mostly based on the specific way his facial features differ from the other Pteranodons, but his behavior is resonant of an autism spectrum disorder. If the show is geared towards children with aspergers, it makes sense that the writers would make a character that embodies a couple vague symptoms of various disorders or conditions and not feel the need to either express or explain it, in order to promote tolerance in their viewers.