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Helping Your Kid with Autism Manage Their Sensitivity to Movies and Shows

4 strategies that eased my son's anxieties and helped make TV time interactive, educational, and fun.

Parent and young child at home watching TV on sofa

When I was pregnant with my son, I was full of ideas about what we would watch together as he grew up. Then when he was 4, he got his autism diagnosis and much of that careful planning went out the window. For starters, what kind of kid hates cartoons? Mine, I guess. At that point I knew that I was in for a much different adventure.

If you're the parent or guardian of a child with autism, you've probably been in the same place. You help your kid navigate entertainment a bit more mindfully, with many unavoidable pitfalls along the way.

My kid is now 14, and whenever I think about our struggles with his sensitivity to shows and movies, I get my older sister's voice stuck in my head. She's a longtime school social worker with a favorite phrase: "Name it and tame it!" And I guess that's what I've tried to do over the years. I first work to understand what my kid's pain points are. Then I address them over time with a number of strategies to ease his anxieties and help him enjoy a variety of shows, movies, and more.

How to "name it"

Pay close attention to your kid's pain points. As I said, mine hated cartoons at that age when every other kid adored them. He also hated puppets, characters that expressed really strong emotions, and anything with fast-paced visuals.

So, what makes your kiddo turn off the TV and run screaming from the room or the theater? Get your mental list situated, and then "name it" for everyone in your kid's sphere. Include media requests in your kid's special education plan. My kid's plan in elementary school indicated that I should be notified about all shows or movies shown in the classroom.

Same idea goes for social time with friends. Parents of my kid's neurotypical friends know to ask me for an OK about what movies the kids will watch together. I've vetoed many choices, but I also know to come to the table with plenty of options I think both my kid and his friends will like.

How to "tame it"

Now we've named the pain points, and we've done our best to protect kids from screen anxiety when we aren't around. So here comes the "taming" part. When you are around, this is the time to work on helping your kid deal with their anxiety. Start slow, let them lead (they always decide when something is too much), and most of all, get creative.

Here's what I've tried that actually worked and may work for you, too:

1. Use nonfiction as your viewing home base, and branch out from there.

My kid learned the word "assassination" from a book about the U.S. presidents at age 6. It reminded me that difficult topics come up in nonfiction all the time. And because these topics are in the context of history, facts, and dates, it's often easier for kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to deal with.

Start with our documentaries lists, and consider titles where the age skews a little older if your kid's interests often mirror those of older kids or adults. (For my son, this only goes for nonfiction, however.) For example, my kid at 14 adores jazz. We're currently watching the Ken Burns Jazz docuseries, which is very much for adults. There's more sex and drug content than he's ever seen. It's led to many important discussions and an opening for those discussions—once we're done discussing the jazz greats at length, of course.

2. Try silent movies.

Speaking of history, the film The General from 1926 is a must-see (try to find a version with a decent soundtrack, as the quality varies). All Buster Keaton movies, in fact, are a good bet. Don't know who Buster Keaton is? Check out one of my family's absolute favorites, Sherlock Jr., on YouTube for free. Silent movies have all the action and excitement of talkies, but they have that extra buffer—both in terms of sound and with the less flashy black-and-white visuals—to help kids feel like they have a bit of distance.

You can talk through the whole film if you want. No one will mind! And for your history buff, you can search online for how the film was made. For your musician, bring over their favorite instruments or apps and have them add their own soundtrack. There are so many ways to make these movies interactive and immersive, and also not scary.

3. Read the book first.

Out loud. Together. I'm a longtime book reviewer with a kid on the spectrum, so you can bet I've tried this approach the most. During the summer of 2020, with so much time together, we read Lord of the Rings and watched one movie at a time. I never, ever thought my kid would get through the gory parts of that series, but the books gave him the confidence—he knew what was coming, and knew it would come out right in the end.

Reading the books first can even make your kid legitimately excited about a new movie or TV show. This was the case with The Mysterious Benedict Society (MBS) on Disney+ and Lockwood & Co. on Netflix. I got him interested in reading MBS because the kids solve all kinds of puzzles. In Lockwood, despite the scare factor, he was engaged because it takes place in London and the characters ride the underground on their way to fight ghosts. Always look to your kid's (often intense) interests for your way in.

4. Explain how a story has a predictable structure.

Here's something I picked up from a writing class and repurposed for my rule-bound kid. So much of the excitement of viewing for us neurotypical folks is in not knowing how the story will go. But this can be too much uncertainty for kiddos with ASD.

All stories have a basic structure that's pretty easy to follow. Remind them that something has to happen to the main character(s) at the beginning that changes everything. Ask kids to find this moment in the story. Then the characters have to deal with that change. They try and try and fail, and near the end things can get really stressful just before the story resolves. You can talk through this stressful moment—when kids usually run from the screen—as a natural part of the story that's just about to resolve. Almost there!

Once kids get the pattern and understand that stories follow rules, they may find that this predictability helps them navigate a show or movie they used to find too difficult.

Wishing you and your wonderfully neurodiverse family the best on your journey to find quality entertainment!

Carrie R. Wheadon
Carrie thoroughly enjoyed nearly four years as the DVD and book editor for Common Sense Media before deciding to stay home with her son on the autism spectrum. When she's not busy watching jazz band competitions and cross-country meets, she reads a whole lot of middle grade and YA fantasy, mystery, and sci-fi stories. She's clocked in more than 500 reviews for Common Sense now and needs bigger bookshelves! In her spare time she takes memoir classes in Portland, Oregon, and is ever-so-slowly working on her own book of essays.