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Using Screen Time to Grow Social and Language Skills for Your Child with Autism

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At-Home Learning is an early childhood education resource (for ages 2-8) providing families, educators and community partners with at-home learning activities, guides, and expert advice.

Some people think that plopping children in front of a television or tablet for entertainment can impact their development in a negative way, but that’s not always the case. When you join your child in front of a screen and enter their world, you can unlock extraordinary opportunities for growth in social communication and emotional intelligence, especially in the case of children on the autism spectrum.

A man and a little boy watch something on a tablet together as they lie down on a carpet next to each other
Co-viewing isn't lazy! It can help grow your child’s social, emotional and language skills.

A Texas Tech University study found children’s learning increases when a parent or caregiver sits next to the child and watches the show with them. A parent’s presence makes all the difference. Also known as co-viewing, joining in on screen time can support the foundational skills taught in speech and language therapy for children on the autism spectrum. It encourages the multiple uses of language for greeting, informing and requesting, teaches how to change your language based on the setting and the communication partner, and models pacing during storytelling and conversations. Co-viewing allows parents to reinforce these social communication skills along with an understanding of feelings and emotions to increase a child’s ability to succeed independently during social interactions.

Below are some tips to take screen time to the next level and make it a positive experience for a child’s development.

Pause for Teachable Moments

To start, parents should choose a show or video that includes teachable moments specific to social communication skills and emotional intelligence, such as “Sesame Street” and “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” The latter is a goldmine for targeting these skills. Research has indicated Daniel Tiger helps preschoolers on the autism spectrum learn specific social skills, such as sharing with peers.

Each episode begins with Daniel Tiger inviting the viewer in and asking if they would like to make believe with him. Hit pause after Daniel Tiger asks this question and confirm with your child if they want to make believe with Daniel Tiger, and if they want you to come along as well. Ask them to invite you and show them how. This is called initiating. Say something like, “Now you can invite me to make believe by asking, ‘Dad, do you want to make believe with me?’” Express to your child how happy it makes you that they invited you to encourage them to do this in the future. Many children on the autism spectrum are desperate to join in on peer fun or invite others to join them and this tool teaches them how to do that.

Repeat this when Daniel Tiger or his friends initiate a question. Remember to do so a maximum of three times per episode or clip to avoid unwanted frustration and to keep your child motivated.

Point Out and Practice the Emotions

Cartoon of a small tiger frowning next to a bunch of balloons
Daniel Tiger is great at teaching kids what different emotions look like.

Parents can also pause to identify a new feeling on the show and to practice imitating that emotion together. Daniel Tiger and his family and friends exhibit and name a variety of emotions throughout each episode. When Daniel’s cake gets smooshed in the birthday episode, he says he is frustrated, for example. Pause to talk about Daniel Tiger’s body posture, his eyes and eyebrows, and the shape of his mouth, and then label the emotion out loud. For example, a child can say the word “frustrated” out loud or generate that message on their speech generating device, and then practice making the corresponding face and body language that show frustration. Repeat this when Daniel Tiger is happy or excited, or when Katerina or Prince Wednesday are sad, surprised or worried. There are a variety of emotions to practice for each episode.

Participate and Show Delight

Parents can also look out for the parts of the show that captivate their child and join in on the fun. Children are quick to learn the catchy songs, dancing and smiling along. When Daniel is nervous about trying a new food and sings, “You gotta try new things, cause they might taste good!” parents can sing it, too. By showing interest and engagement with the show, you are sending a message to your child that you care about what they enjoy. This bond results in increased participation and motivation from your child.

Bridge What You Watched to Everyday Life

When the show is over, the social and emotional learning does not stop. Help your child carry what they learned in the show into everyday life. If your child becomes frustrated, you can initiate a song Daniel Tiger sang in the show, such as, “When something seems bad, turn it around, and find something good.” You can also use the feelings identified in the show to point out how your child might be feeling, including when they are happy! Learning social communication skills and increasing emotional intelligence takes practice in natural environments.

Watch it Again

Most likely, a child will want to watch the same episode or clip again and that’s okay. This offers another opportunity to find teachable moments and to look for new ones to expand on. Ask, “Why does Daniel Tiger feel (angry, sad, happy, scared)?” Remember, you are teaching your child the rules of social communication and laying the groundwork for emotional intelligence simply by watching TV together.

So parents, wave goodbye to shame. Turn that screen back on and plop down next to your child for a productive co-viewing session.

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