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The Power of Film: Autism and Video Modeling

A few weeks back, we covered the story of Owen Suskind, who after he was diagnosed with autism at the age of three all but disappeared from any kind of social interaction with his family and kids his age. Instead, he seemed to spend all of his time watching Disney movies. However, his parents soon realized that the Disney movies were actually helping Owen in learning how to process the world and to identify certain individuals through seeing them as Disney characters. Twenty years later and Owen is now a college student—not to mention the president of his school’s Disney Club—and he has made humongous leaps forward in terms of his communication and social abilities that his parents never could have imagined.


While Owen’s story might seem to some as an uplifting, but out-of-the-ordinary anecdote, his is far from the only comparable case in which watching films, YouTube, television shows, or especially-designed videos aimed at children with autism have helped children to make massive inroads into gaining control over some of their symptoms.


Recently, a story appeared in The Guardian in which a mother expressed her concern that her son’s obsession with YouTube videos might be stunting his self-esteem. However, Anna Ratlidge at the National Autistic Society in the UK had an entirely different take on the matter, expressing that the mother could actually use the YouTube videos to help him communicate his feelings by using the characters on screen, showing him certain visuals or images that he can point to as examples of how he’s feeling or sees others around him.

While this might sound like instances that worked for particular children but might not be ideal as a mainstream therapy treatment, in fact, these are both examples of Video Modeling, an accepted and useful therapy treatment for individuals with autism. Video Modeling is a therapy used to teach children on the autism spectrum social behaviors as they often are very visual thinkers. Thus, in the case of children who particularly enjoy watching cartoons or the like, bad behavior might be rooted in a particular scene or movie they saw whereas increased sociability might be the result of them emulating a certain character with whom they feel a special connection.


This method has proven so effective that whole treatments have been developed around producing programs aimed at an audience of children with autism to help them learn the social and communication skills that they might otherwise be unable to do when interacting with an actual person. Often, a learning environment can prove very stressful and anxiety inducing for children with autism, creating a negative situation.


However, Video Modeling changes all of this as it removes the necessity of person-to-person interaction from the learning process, taking the pressure off of a child and allowing him or her to concentrate on the video. Furthermore, there is a repetitive nature to video modeling as repeated practice that will help children to learn a skill. Furthermore, videos are often extremely engaging, which will help children learn all the more quickly. Finally, video modeling is becoming an increasingly popular method of treatment because it can be used almost anywhere: in the classroom, at home, on tablets and smart phones, and even in a car.


So if your child is particularly drawn to or obsessed with watching movies and shows, figure out a way with a therapist or expert that you can use the content he or she is watching to help them develop social and communication skills.