The wonder of kids’ TV

I’d forgive you for reading the title of this post and thinking you’ve stumbled on to the wrong blog. A Speech and Language Therapist hailing kids’ TV as a ‘wonder’?!  Maybe she’s being sarcastic…?

Kids’ TV has been scrutinised and debated for as long as I can remember- From disapproving experts berating the Teletubbies for having their own special language to, back in my day (How old does THAT phrase make me sound?!), when programmes like Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles were criticized for being too violent…only to make a comeback a decade or two later.

It’s important to have these debates. We know that children under 5 have this incredible brain plasticity, quickly forming neural pathways as a result of everyday experiences. This is both amazing and frightening for parents, educators and health professionals, knowing that what our children are exposed to plays a role in moulding their ideas, attitudes and to a certain degree, their personalities.  Quite a responsibility…!

Recently, I saw an article on a Facebook page about Sesame Street introducing a new character. This caught my attention as when I was a child, I loved Sesame Street…In fact, I probably watched it until I was way past their target age demographic! Let’s face it; a picture of Elmo is ‘click-bait’ for most of us… But this article was both touching and surprising.

The writers of Sesame Street have created Julia- a character who has Autism. Julia has made friends with Big Bird and the gang but she exhibits traits of Autism that we often see in young girls- In her opening scene, we see her so engrossed in her colouring-in that she doesn’t respond to questions and comments from the others. She struggles with social skills, like greetings and initiating communication and is echolalic (repeating words and phrases that others around her have used).

But what is much more important than Julia’s difficulties is the fact that she still wants to play and interact in her own way with those around her…And the other characters accept this, integrating her into their games, adapting them to include her preferences.

Sesame Street has always been known for its catchy songs to help children learn the alphabet, numbers and shapes- But how much more important is it to educate our children to accept others, to be tolerant and caring individuals? And how brilliant for our children who have speech, language or communication difficulties, to finally see characters on TV who they can relate to?

Of course, Sesame Street is not the first kids’ TV show to make this connection. Mr Tumble has pretty much single-handedly made Makaton signing mainstream since his show ‘Something Special’ first aired in 2003. Suddenly, children with communication difficulties were no longer this minority group that no one talked about- They were signing, playing and having fun, demonstrating to everyone that people can communicate in different ways.

However, I’m under no illusion that all children’s television is some beautiful beacon of inclusivity. While writing this post, I stumbled on an article in The Guardian, dated July 2015 with the headline, ‘Children’s TV pretends disability doesn’t exist’. It specifically hones in on kids’ channels such as Nickelodeon and Disney and how their programmes fail to include and embrace children with disabilities.

One child in every twenty in the UK has a disability. Many of these children may have ‘invisible disabilities’ including speech, language and communication needs. It’s not that we need TV programmes to be the prime source of information on disability for our children- it’s that we need real life to be represented and for our children to have role models in the media who aren’t all carbon copies of each other.  We want our children to feel fairly represented in the programmes that they watch and for parents to use topics raised in children’s TV programmes as conversation starters to help children to better understand themselves and others.

I am heartened that programmes such as Sesame Street see the importance of this. I’m hopeful that other children’s TV programmes will follow suit. ..And in the meantime, as parents, educators and health professionals, that we continue to help our children to understand that uniqueness is something to be celebrated and not something to be scared of. If TV programmes can help us in broaching these tricky conversations, then let’s use them as a springboard!

If you want to start by checking out Julia’s first day down on Sesame Street, have a look at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKCdV20zLMs