10 Reasons for Allowing Autistic Children to Watch TV

It's true that children on the autism spectrum need a great deal of therapeutic interaction. In fact, many therapeutic experts recommend hours a day of therapy, often provided by parents or guardians. TV and videos aren't interactive, so does that mean they're forbidden to parents or guardians with autistic children? Actually, TV and videos, in limited amounts and carefully selected, can actually be a boon to parents, guardians, and autistic children alike. It's important to know that TV cannot cause autism, even in large doses, contrary to a now-debunked 2006 study (though, of course, too many hours of TV can make it hard for a child to find time to do anything else!).


Research Shows That Autistic Children Learn From Videos

TV for younger children
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Researchers have looked into the power of video modeling for children with autism. They've discovered that videos, which can be viewed over and over again, are actually powerful tools for teaching skills, concepts, and even emotional responses. Some video modeling has been shown to effectively teach life skills like tooth brushing, shoe tying and more. Choose shows or videos that teach these skills, and allow the child in your care to watch as often as possible. Reference the videos when working on the skills, and you'll be amazed at the positive response.


Carefully Selected TV Shows Can Help A Child Connect With Their Peers

Children with autism are idiosyncratic enough without being denied the common cultural language of television. Even if the child with autism doesn't fully grasp the humor of "Spongebob," for example, their knowledge of the characters and settings will provide them with better tools for connecting with their peers. Older children may benefit from familiarity with popular TV shows, as they can provide an entree to social activities such as trips to comic book conventions, school clubs, and more.


TV and Video Can Provide Parent or Guardian and Child With a Common Language

As you and the child in your care watch videos or TV together, you can establish a common symbolic language. That language can provide the basis for shared imaginative play. If a child loves Elmo and you've watched "Sesame Street" together, you can reference Elmo's friends, use an Elmo toy to build symbolic play skills, and much more.


TV and Videos Can Open the World to A Child

Many children on the autism spectrum are fascinated by animals, trains, or other aspects of the real world. Selected TV and videos, such as "Animal Planet" and the "Eye Witness" videos can build on those interests.

Next step: a trip to the real zoo to see real crocodiles, a real-life train ride, or just a visit to the pet store.


TV and Videos Can Create a Link Between the Internal and External Worlds

Many children with autism live inside their own heads. One of the greatest challenges parents face is finding ways to engage their child in the real world. Many TV "worlds" have corresponding real-world venues that you and the child in your care can explore together. Depending on where you live, you might choose to visit Sesame Place (near Philadelphia), take a trip on a "Thomas the Tank Engine" train, attend a "Wiggles" concert, or visit a PBS-themed exhibit in a children's museum. If your child is a Harry Potter or Disney fan, of course, you're in luck: the number of wonderful options to share is huge; you may even discover that you both have more in common than you thought.


TV Provides a Much-Needed Respite for Parents or Guardians

It's easy to feel guilty for plopping your autistic child in front of the TV. The truth is, though, that no one can be physically and emotionally available all day, every day. Even parents or guardians of kids with disabilities need a break. And carefully selected TV or videos, offered in a structured and limited manner, can be a sanity-saver. The trick, of course, is to control what your child watches.


TV and Video Time Can Build Parent or Guardian-Child Relationships

Even if you're not actively engaging with each other in a therapeutic manner, you can cuddle together on the couch. Those quiet, physically intimate moments together may be just as significant to your child's development as high energy interactive play.


TV and Videos Can Stimulate Ideas for Therapy

If you are a parent or guardian who practices developmental therapies like floortime, RDI or Sonshine, you may simply run out of creative ideas. And very often, children with autism are not much help in that department. TV and videos can stimulate your imagination with new images, ideas, and scenarios.


Autistic Children Relate Intensely to TV-Related Merchandise and Games

Typical children may tire quickly of Sesame Street toys. Children on the autism spectrum, however, are more likely to find real comfort and pleasure in toys that relate to their favorite videos. And those toys can become a wonderful source for therapeutic play. So can some of the video games related to PBS television program. In fact, the Arthur website includes a game which asks kids to connect facial expressions to story events!


Auditory and Visual Teaching Is Ideal for Autistic Children

Autistic people often learn best with their eyes and ears, while words may not sink in. Carefully curated TV and video watching can help a child build knowledge and skills that can be used in school or the community. Whether it's a PBS show intended to teach phonics or a National Geographic documentary on birds, a child can learn a great deal from TV. You can also order and use videos specifically intended to teach skills and ideas from sources such as Model Me Kids, which create videos for autistic children.

Back in the bad old days, children watched the "boob tube" and saw whatever happened to be playing. Today, parents and guardians have tremendous control over their child's television experience. Parents or guardians with autism can use that control to their own and their child's advantage by curating the shows their children watch, experiencing the shows together, and building on TV watching with real-world experiences. A few tips for helping a child get the most from TV time:

  • Select videos or streaming options yourself, and use parental controls to be sure a child doesn't wind up watching something you'd prefer they didn't see.
  • Preview anything a child will be watching to be sure you're really comfortable with it.
  • Whenever possible, watch together. Stop the video or stream when appropriate to ask questions or otherwise engage with the child in your care.
  • If the child in your care becomes "stuck" on a particular show or episode, use that show as a way to reward them for achievements or good behavior (you may watch X show as soon as you finish putting away your toys).
  • Seek out ways to use your child's TV preferences to explore venues or experiences in the real world.
  • Make your own videos with the child in your care to model behaviors or experiences you'd like them to better understand.
1 Source
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Richard PR, Noell GH. Teaching children with autism to tie their shoes using video prompt-models and backward chaining. Dev Neurorehabil. 2019;22(8):509-515. doi:10.1080/17518423.2018.1518349

Additional Reading
  • Dueñas AD, Plavnick JB, Bak MYS. Effects of Joint Video Modeling on Unscripted Play Behavior of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord. 2018.

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.