Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be Couch Potatoes

I hate to break it to you, but your preschooler watching Sponge Bob Square Pants that's not a good thing.  Your cute little child that is now sitting in front of the TV screen will one day turn into a teenager that will want to watch You Tube and anime movies all day.

I remember the days when Jacob was little.  Such a beautiful boy and such challenging behaviors.  His bright blue eyes beautifully accentuated his golden blonde hair.  But that sweet angelic face masked the challenges that lie within his small little body.  I look at pictures of him when he had just turned 5 and I remember thinking back then that he if only he wasn't so challenging, if he could just do what people told him to do, maybe he could give modeling or acting a try.  The behaviors caused by his autism prevented that from even being a remote possibility, but I've never let that bother me.  Jacob is a terrific young man who will find his way one day.  Hollywood probalby would have not been a positive influence anyway.

Jacob was an in between kid that his behaviors were too distracting for a class of typical peers but a class that had more impacted kids was not appropriate either.  Finding the right preschool proved to be really difficult.  The LAUSD classes didn't really have any with peers that were at Jacob's developmental age and without an aide in the classroom, Jacob couldn't attend any private schools.  I searched every promising preschool within a 10 mile radius that I thought would be a good fit and would accept Jacob with a one-on-one, and  I finally located an excellent one in Santa Monica.  By chance and with a lot of phone calls, I also found a young woman that had been a teacher at one of them and she was now looking to work as a private behavioral aide.  She turned into a lifeline to being in a mainstream classroom for Jacob. After preshcool, she stayed with him for an additional year through kindergarden; during her time with him, Jacob never had any major disciplinary problems and even developed a few friendships along the way.  

Looking back, I know how lucky both Jacob and I were.  Along with his aide, Jacob's public elementary school always supported him.  For a while, LAUSD even paid for private speech therapy and gave him high quality occupational therapy on site at school.  The district occupational therapist that worked at Jacob's school when he started first grade was really amazing.  To the first IEP that she attended, she came with a OT catalog and said she was going to order a weighted vest for him to wear in the classroom.  She also showed me how to do OT techniques at home, gave me additional reading material on senory integration, and even set up a sensory room in an empty classroom at the school.  She was supportive in every way and always inciteful about what Jacob needed at the time.  When I hear that the school is as good as when Jacob attended, I am even more appreciative to everyone that worked so many hours with him. Back then, he could a handful, but Jacob was liked just enough by peers, teachers and administrators in spite of it.  

I also made sure I did what I could to help the teachers and the school.  I figured if my son was going to make life difficult for the people that worked with everyday, they better like me too.  I thought that if I voluteered to drive on fieldtrips, helped to organize the class parties, got a lot of stuff donated and wrote he catalog for the school's silent auction fundraisers, the teachers and administrators would be more understanding of Jacob when he was being challenging.  I know it made a difference for the better. Jacob was always accepted and never ostrasized, even on his most unrewarding days.

This was Jacob.  A gorgeous cherub-faced youngster with behaviors that were not severe but challenging enough that he required to be monitored constantly.   So what is the perfect thing to help calm a child that wants to explore and get into stuff when you just want to get something finished, like balance your checkbook or do the laundry?  Thomas the Tank Engine, that's who.  And don't forget his friends Barney, The Wiggles (which I have to admit I kind of liked), Dora the Explorer, and many others that I can't even begin to remember.  And all innocent enough, at least I thought at the time.

Now fast forward twelve years later, and Jacob is just a few weeks shy of turning 18.  And what is his favorite thing to do - watch TV, videos and You Tube.  Yes, he's graduated from Disney videos to Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Tropic Thunder, and too many Japanese animated videos to mention. Some I like too. We're both fans of the Big Lubowski, and for his next birthday, he's going to watch the movie with some friends then go bowling at the alley down the street.  

It's not all completely bad.  We like a few of the same shows and sharing tiime watching these together is a ritual in our house.  We both love Futurama and Community, and Jacob enjoys viewing them with Doug and I.   Watching quality television is something I really like, but it's probably not a positive thing to get my obsessive compulsive soon-to-be 18 year old son in the habit of even more TV shows, no matter how good I think they are.  Still, I'm glad that we can share something together that we both really enjoy.

Back then, had the Magic 8 ball shown me the Jacob of today, I know I would have turned off the TV and played with him.  Always.  I was a stay-at-home Mom, so I had the luxury of time.  But back then, I thought, a little TV what won't hurt.  But it did.  My cute little boy grew into a not so cute teenager who has grown into a slightly overweight young adult that has become obsessed to electronic forms of entertainment.  Letting Jacob watch a little Sesame Street when he was little, I thought how bad could that be.  But the habit of spending time in front of a video screen or computer monitor, it's mushroomed into an addiction that has sucked Jacob in.  It happens to typical kids all the time.  Just throw in some social communication challenges and the alure of the video and the internet, something that does the same thing the same way all time and isn't unpredictable like people, it'll absorb your child's attention more and more.   And as the habit grows into an addiction, it'll become more and more intense as the years fly by.

So, to all the Moms of the world with the adorable 3 year old child with autism, TURN OFF THE TV!  Play with your son.  When he gets overwhelmed, stop and give me a break, then play some more for as long as you can.  Forget about washing the dishes, opening the mail, or making one last call before bed.  Everyday for as long as you can stand it, have your child spend the majority of his time with you doing anything with you besides sitting in front of the boob tube.   I promise, you won't regret it.


When Susan isn't waiting until the last minute to write her monthly contribution to Hopeful Parents, she is Program Director of the College Interhnship Program in Long Beach.  Her son, Jacob, started 11th grade at Culver City High School today.


  1. Oh, how I want ti stick my fingers in my ears and pretend you didn't just say this.
    Thanks for the heads up. I know you are right. I don't want you to be right... but I know you are right.
    I may have to pretend the power has been knocked out by a thunderstorm...

  2. Valerie, believe me, I know how incredibly hard it would be just to turn off the TV for Jacob. Unfortunately, now he's had years of getting hooking on the electronics. At least it's not violent video games, but still, it's not a positive thing. But as the saying goes, if I knew then what I knew now, things would be different. This is a big problem for a lot of other parents that I know that have teenage and adult children with autism. Me included.