Daniel Tiger tries tomatoesDaniel Tiger’s Neighborhood can help teach social skills to preschoolers this was the remarkable conclusion my research team and I reached a few years ago.

Social skills are vital to children’s growth and success in preschool and beyond; that’s exactly why PBS Parents offers articles that focus on helping kids to develop self-control, empathy, perspective-taking, and communication skills. Along with shows such as Daniel Tiger and Sesame Street, these are great resources for the parents of “neurotypical” children — that is, children without any developmental disability.

But what about the 1 in 6 children in the United States with a developmental disability? Or, to be more specific, the 1 in 68 children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)? How do we help these kids build social skills?

After we published the results of the Daniel Tiger study, our research team at Texas Tech University started hearing stories from parents of children with ASD. They said that watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood had helped their kids, too.

Teaching social skills to neurotypical preschoolers can be tough job, and teaching those skills to children with ASD can be especially challenging. “Most of the time, kids with autism need intensive one-on-one therapy,” said Dr. Wes Dotson, a member of our research team and director of the Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research at Texas Tech University, in an interview with the local Lubbock, Texas, PBS station. “You have to do a lot of individualized work to help them pick up skills, especially social skills and interpersonal skills.”

So hearing that young children with autism were learning skills from watching a TV show was surprising to us. “It’s a counter-intuitive thing that putting a kid with autism in front of a television can lead to learning,” Dotson said. But that’s exactly what we found when we put the question to the test.

We invited two 5-year-old boys with ASD to the research lab, and we studied their skills in two areas where children with autism often struggle: trying new foods (food selectivity) and stopping play when asked (breaking routines). Not surprisingly, at these initial visits, neither boy was proficient in either skill.

We then showed the boys two episodes of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood that correspond with each skill: Daniel Tries a New Food (episode 116) and Daniel Doesn’t Want to Stop Playing (episode 127).

To our surprise (and delight) both boys started trying new foods after watching the corresponding episode just once or twice, and both tried multiple new foods during the course of the study. Similarly, both boys’ ability to stop playing upon request also improved — one of the boys started displaying this skill after watching the corresponding episode only once.

Now, note that this study only involved two young boys with ASD, and in no way represents the entire population of kids with ASD. Clearly, more research is needed, but it is the first evidence that something as simple as watching a publicly-available children’s show may help kids with ASD learn these vital skills.

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood doesn’t directly tackle issues associated with autism — these promising results seem to be the byproduct of an engaging program that addresses broader social-emotional topics. Two other educational children’s shows have integrated characters with autism. Just last year, Sesame Street introduced viewers to a new friend, a 4-year-old girl named Julia. And in 2016, viewers of Dinosaur Train met Dennis Deinocheirus in a two-part special. While I don’t know of any research yet that looks at the effects of characters with autism in these two shows, the hope is that kids with autism and their neurotypical counterparts will better understand each other and the challenges and opportunities associated with ASD.

Regardless of the challenges our children face, being a parent is a tough job. Rewarding, yes, but tough. And while no television program could possibly address the developmental needs of every type of challenge we and our children face, it is encouraging to know that we’re not alone. There are some pretty smart people working on fantastic programs that just might help our kids in areas where they most need it.

And as a parent, I’ll take all the help I can get.

About Eric Rasmussen, PhD

Eric Rasmussen, PhD, is a husband, father of four, professor of communication, and children and media researcher. He is the author of ChildrenAndMediaMan.com, and his mission is to get research about children and media off the academic shelves and into the hands of those who need it most—parents.

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