When experts write about how to help children affected by autism (particularly Level 1 or high-functioning autism), the most common piece of advice is to improve their social skills. This goal cannot be achieved in a psychologist’s office alone. Kids can quickly become bored when clinicians use social role-playing videos to help children with autism. Other common strategies such as direct training in social skills, involvement in a social group, or teaching of conversational skills are limiting.
Social skills are best taught when the people with whom these children are closest model effective social behavior. Along with modeling, home strategies like recognition of other people’s interests and the use of social stories to prepare for upcoming social situations or transitions can be effective. Another effective home strategy to help kids with autism build social skills is to use popular movies.
One fascinating description of the use of movies in this regard can be seen in Ron Suskind’s book about his son, Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism. In his book, Suskind describes how his son Owen, who did not speak for years, was able to transform his memorization of Disney movies into a method to communicate with his family.
While the use of movies in this fashion is the exception, there are many reasons to consider movies as a tool for parents and clinicians who want to teach social skills to kids affected by autism:
- Almost all kids, particularly those impacted by autism, are willing to watch a movie repeatedly. The use of a favorite movie as a primary source of observing effective social skills is likely to result in more learning.
- Rewind, pause, slow motion, and other such tools allows for careful exploration of social sub-skills.
- Actors are professionals–even the animals and cartoon figures–and can more easily exaggerate the traits we want to share.
- With so many movies to choose from, the same skill can be practiced across situations and by many actors. This can help children to generalize a skill and understand that it is useful across many settings.
- Parents and siblings can try this at home.
- Just watching movies can be a good opportunity to enhance social skills, so there is likely to be some benefit even when the movies are not being used specifically to improve social skills.
Here are four great movies to help kids affected by autism:
Inside Out (Preschool and Up) – Inside Out is a fun and heart-warming movie about growing up and learning to identify and manage emotions. This movie is an excellent tool to use when teaching children how to deal with their feelings and impulses in an effective manner.
Finding Nemo (Preschool and Up) – In Finding Nemo, a clownfish named Marlin goes on an adventure through the ocean in search of his missing son, Nemo. Faced with constantly changing demands and scenarios, Marlin must be flexible, work with others, and adapt his approaches in order to find his child.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Elementary and Up) – In the first installment of the Harry Potter series, the young wizard Harry enrolls at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he meets new friends and finds adventure around every turn. In order to succeed in capturing the Sorcerer’s Stone and defeat Lord Voldemort, Harry must use his wizardry knowledge and remember lessons from school and friends.
Zootopia (Elementary and Up) – In Zootopia, animals have supposedly learned to transcend the labels of “predator” and “prey” to live together in peace and harmony. Judy Hopps, the first ever rabbit on the Zootopia Police Department, must do her job even though everyone sees her as “just a little bunny.” The movie teaches children about being who they want to be and working hard to reach those goals even when others doubt them.
At LearningWorks for Kids, we believe the games and technologies that kids already want to use can be effective learning tools. Read why we think you should let your child with autism play video games, how to set limits on technology, and what to do when your child gets a little too involved in a game like Minecraft.
Featured image: Flickr user Ravi Shah