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Special Needs and Learning Difficulties

Are there positive role models for my kid with special needs?

Many popular movies, TV shows, and books have characters with disabilities, and many are positive role models. You can use these examples to talk with your kids about tolerance, respect, and stereotypes. You can draw your kids out and ask them to share their own experiences as people with disabilities. Using media, take the opportunity to talk about the characters, what they overcame, how they're treated, and what makes them unique.

Here are some people and media to consider when starting the conversation:

 Media personalities with disabilities:

  • Carol Greider, Noble Prize-winning geneticist (learning disabilities)
  • Steven Spielberg, award-winning film director (ADHD)
  • Temple Grandin, animal scientist (autistic spectrum disorder) 
  • Baxter Humby, kickboxer (amputated hand)
  • Football player Tim Tebow, actor Whoopi Goldberg, Virgin CEO Richard Branson, actor Henry Winkler, and singer Cher (dyslexia)

Television shows that have positive role models:

Glee. Artie is paraplegic, and Becky has Down syndrome.
Switched at Birth. Emmett is deaf.
Parenthood. Max has Asperger's syndrome.
The Secret Life of an American Teenager. Tom Bowman has Down syndrome.

Movies that have positive role models:

Radio. James Robert Kennedy, aka Radio, has an intellectual disability.
I Am Sam. Sam has an intellectual disability.
Adam. Adam has Asperger's syndrome.
Forrest Gump. Forrest has an intellectual disability.

Vicki Windman contributed to this article.

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written by c704710

If he's younger, old episodes of Seasame Street (before they went all hyper sensitive politically correct and socially bland. It's also suffering from gentrification, but that's another issue). Then he can watch them again in his teen years with new appreciation. Many of the characters are not merely child-like (or actually child age), some have actual mental disorders and get help to overcome them. Count von Count is a great example. Suffering from Arithmomania (a specific type of OCD), he actually began as a _villain_ in the series. Intimidating and hypnotizing people, even stealing and kidnapping to exercise his compulsion to count. Characters dreaded meeting him. His castle is dusty, dark and full of cobwebs not because he's trying to be scary, but because his OCD prevents him from taking time to maintain his residence. Wow, this is amazingly anti-stereotypical, realistic, an contrasting to most OCD portrayals! But, by asking for help and finding productive things to do in his community (getting out of his isolated castle) he eventually arrived at a point where he no longer uses his vampire powers on people and can choose not to count when practical and social circumstances are better served by not counting. _But not immediately_. The Count's progress is realistically portrayed with many failures along the way (you'll have a hard time finding this in other disordered portals for nearly any other entertainment for young persons). The list of Sesame Street disorders is extensive. Telly has Social Anxiety Disorder. Even to the point of being a danger to himself and others and loosing his grip on reality (he hallucinates). He's been on the virge of mental breakdown, suicidal, and violent. "I don't wanna THINK! I wanna HIT! HIT! HIT!" Telly has eventually found alternate and acceptable was to express himself with minimal social demands, such as playing the tuba in public. Cookie Monster's binge-eating disorder is another. Friends realistically exercise all the wrong treatments for Cookie's disorder (but these happen to be good things for kids without disorders who'd simply want to eat too much candy), and viewers get to see these repeated failures. Friends also engage in a shockingly realistic level of enabling. Eventually Cookie submits to cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy to manage his disorder. Bert has high-functioning autism (Asperger's Syndrome is an unanachronistic diagnosis). He is among the more responsible characters. Oscar is not a role model but there are reasons to list him here. Oscar is not a necessarily grouch by choice, he is a sociopath with antisocial personality disorder (and his species is Grouch). However, he does make choices that help him to be a bad person. His way of dealing with his disorder is to make other people miserable on purpose (which is a choice). He serves as an example of bad behavior. Some say he's improved because he moved out of a trash can and into a recycling bin and has a girlfriend. He actually is preventing the bin from being used and him and his girlfriend a practically estranged being together only for short bursts of trapping and manipulating each other (although she may not be sociopath). But the bottom line for the Oscar character is, he can't be fixed and doesn't want to be. The unfixable part is pretty much true for all the characters with disorders on Seasame street. They manage their disorders, but they still have them, just as in most cases in real life. Oscar is a kind of glaring reminder about how the real world works and what to avoid. Even though there is little hope for him, he serves to drive others to deal with their issues so they won't be an Oscar or won't be a victim of people like him. Just look at the encouragement (among the fun both good and bad) given to Big Bird on Twitter when Oscar dissed him: But one more important thing about Oscar is how he demonstrates some of the worst things people with disorders can expect to have to deal with. Oscar often directly attacks the other characters' disorders. Teasing Cookie Monster with a cookie. Insulting Telly's music. Making the count lose count. Oscar cultivates sadistic pleasure in causing anguish (which is a choice, most sociopaths cultivate more productive activities). BTW, like Grover, Oscar is homeless. Grover is not, however, always jobless; he's never settled on a career path going from one dead-end job to the next and never doing any all that well. He likes to pretend he graduated college but actually dropped out of high-school. Snuffy is also an anti-role model and uniquely, we see a character develop a disorder over time. He struggled and failed for 14 years to be included in Big Bird's larger social circle. His failure to be included is often directly caused by his obsession to be included (missing out because he's bragging to Big Bird when he's about to go public). Back story (later retracted) reveals this was after his parents divorced at which time he lost all his friends. And of course his species is all but extinct. All causing him to developer an inferiority complex that he has never recovered from. Kids, don't let this happen to you. And in case you are thinking this is all speculation, consider that Sesame Street characters are nearly exclusively named for their struggles and disorders. Grover is a grove dewller. Snuffle means to complain. Count and Grouch, obvious. Cookie Monster literally is one. Telly began as a TV (TV being alternative to social interaction). Ernest means serious; Enrie is not (serious, and not named Ernest). Many people say that these character's struggles and disorders make for very dark show and they would rather not think about it. I disagree. They make the characters more relatable, more realistic (behavior wise), more helpful to children. On the surface, these struggles help tell stories that help typical children. Digging deeper reveals deeper struggles that help children with atypical problems. These layers work well. Caveats: Classic Sesame Street seems to steer sweepingly wide around the issue of prescription medication. The message seeming told is that anything can be treated successfully without it. While I personally believe meds should be the last option considered, they are the necessary in some cases. Re-releases of Sesame Street are likely to be censored if they haven't been already. Many of the deeper issues I mentioned are likely to be softened or eliminated. Currently, this is a disturbing trend in children's programming. An example being Bill Nye's series that removes science concerning gender from re-releases. Loonytoons being one of the few examples that have been handled well in this regard. Disney may follow suit soon by releasing their 'hidden' works in appropriate historical context.