Monday, March 7, 2011

Media Monday: Cartoons for Kids

We've talked in the past about the importance of making sure kids' cartoons are actually child appropriate. We've also discussed the rating system used by television stations and the criteria they use to arrive at a given rating. However, what are children watch teach them ideas, vocabulary, and social skills. So how can we, as parents, try to use that fact to our advantage?

As I've already discussed, modern technology (TiVo, Hulu and other websites, etc.) is an absolute boon to parents, especially those whose children have social deficits, since it allows us to preview programs and avoid commercials. Avoiding consumerism and the poor behavior encouraged by commercials is a wonderful tool for nipping negative social skills in the bud.

When it comes to cartoons, though, the caricatured way in which human behavior is portrayed can cut both ways. In many examples of anime, for example, competition is over-played for the purpose of satire--humor most young children won't understand. However, some cartoons have the benefit of drawing humor from exaggerated facial expressions and melodramatic speech. While we'd prefer that our children not overact their communication, the emphasis that some cartoons place on communication can be a valuable teaching tool--especially for children who are ill-equipped or too young to notice the more subtle reality.

When I look for cartoons for my son, I prefer to find shows that rarely have more than three characters engaging in conversation at once. This way the conversation is rarely too complicated for him to track. I also like for the imagery to focus on and overplay facial expressions--especially in the context of conversation--so that he can learn from the example. It also makes it easier for me to comment to him on what's happening in the show. At this point, his favorites are the Silly Songs from the Veggietales series (which we watch on Youtube and do not have the religious content found in other parts of the series) and Thomas the Tank Engine (which has the added benefit of a narrator to describe what different characters think and feel in relation to their expressions and conversations).

Used carefully, digital media can be a valuable learning tool for communication skills.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Media Monday is Back!

After a long hiatus, the Asperger Society Blog is back in action! Albeit a day late, this post is for Media Monday. The message? Our kids need to go outside!

According to a recent article on BBC News, rickets is back. Rickets is usually a manifestation of vitamin D deficiency that was common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Doctors had, until recently, assumed rickets (like scurvy) to be a thing of the past. It causes low bone density and deformities in the legs (usually bow-leggedness). On a personal note, my own great-aunt had rickets as a child, and because of it she now has what very much looks like osteoporosis. But since her low bone density is from rickets, treatments for osteoporosis do not help.

Now that people, especially children, spend so much time indoors, the specter of rickets has returned. And over-protection against UV rays has only increased the risk.

Vitamin D, while it can be consumed as a supplement, is primarily formed by the body out of cholesterol, when an individual is exposed to sunlight. Too little sunlight (or if the person is too thoroughly protected by sunblock or clothing) and a deficiency results.

Those of us with kids who are glued to their game systems, televisions, or computers--or even the Lego station in their room--need to get our kids playing outside on a regular basis, even if only for a few minutes at a time. It might help social development, and it might help broaden our Aspies' horizons, but it will definitely improve their long term health.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Media Monday: Girls and Melatonin

Please note that this post refers frankly to biological functions and reproductive development.

Wait. What?! What does that title have to do with media and AS? Trust me.

Melatonin is a hormone that the human body generates in darkness. It regulates a variety of biological functions, including circadian rhythms, and seems to be involved in immune function. A growing body of research seems to show that melatonin is also involved in the reproductive system--both its maturation and its functioning.

A current issue of concern for doctors in the US is the fact that the number of girls entering puberty prematurely has increased steadily over the last century. However, the cause(s) remain uncertain. What is known is that early sexual development (defined either as the beginning of of breast tissue development by age of 7 or menarche occurring before the age of 12) increases the likelihood of a girl engaging in risky behaviors (by choice or otherwise) and, more disturbingly, raises her risk of developing breast cancer later in life.

A recent metastudy (drawing on data from 35 individual studies) noted that the light emitted from television screens is of a type that inhibits melatonin production.

While some research also suggests a link between melatonin levels and autism spectrum disorders, I believe a causal relationship in that regard to be tenuous at best, especially in light of the data linking the light from televisions to drops in melatonin production. Since children on the spectrum are often more drawn and attached to screen time than other children, a correlation between ASDs and low melatonin levels is not surprising.

However, girls on the spectrum, due to social immaturity, are often drawn towards or easily duped into intimate relationships at an early age. They can tell that it's a way to gain popularity or manipulate the opposite sex, but lack the skills to engage in or navigate romantic relationships in a safe and healthy manner. They often can also be easily convinced to confuse physical and emotional intimacy. The early onset of puberty, however, compounds these risks by making such girls physically attractive at an earlier age and spurring prematurely the production of hormones that make them wish to seek sexual relationships. In short, early onset of adolescence is especially dangerous for girls with AS.

While I highly doubt that television watching is the primary cause of the rising incidence of early puberty in girls, it is one of many potential causes...a potential cause with an increasing body of evidence behind it, and a potential cause that is not receiving much attention among the general populace. It's also a potential cause that is relatively easy for parents to control (certainly easier than diet or exposure to estrogen mimics, for instance).

In any case, limiting screen time, especially in the evening, can't hurt.

Monday, July 26, 2010

TV Tuesday: Despicable Me

Nickelodeon's new, computer animated movie, Despicable Me, is yet another example of an animated "kids" movie really intended for adults. The first sign of this fact is the casting of Russel Brand as the voice of one of the supporting characters. Russel Brand is best known in Britain for his typically vulgar and often off-color humor--distinctly an adult entertainer. Often, when such performers make their first forays into children's entertainment, their scripts are less than child appropriate. The presence of an actor best known for adult humor always makes me question the child appropriateness of a movie--even when that actor is Eddie Murphy or Robin Williams (both of whom have participated in true children's entertainment).

Beyond this issue of casting, the blurring of the line between hero and villain (in this movie taken to an extreme only surpassed by Batman) is a concept far more appropriate for an adult audience than for a young one. Children are, by definition, learning the rules of their culture and about the different roles people play--that includes the difference between right and wrong. While real people are never purely good or bad, it is far easier for children to learn about good and bad from less realistic, more purified examples, which is why fairy tale characters are written the way they are. When heroes have to struggle with real inner demons or psychological issues as part of the plot, it can easily look to a child like a justification of bad behavior. This is especially so for children on the Spectrum. Our "hero" in Despicable Me is one of the "world's great villains" who is competing with another villain to pull off the ultimate heist. In the process, and through a villainous deception, he learns about the importance of family and love, turning him into a hero. Moreover, the little girls in the story (truly good characters) are impressed by some of our "hero's" more sinister characteristics, further blurring the line between good and bad.

The story itself is surrealist. Our hero wishes to steal the moon to one-up a villain who stole a pyramid. In the process, we encounter all kinds of logic defying devices that distract one from the story line and depart from any frame of reference (a piranha gun, for example). While I think Nickelodeon was attempting to take their cue from Disney's Meet the Robinsons, they overdid it, using bizarre imagery to cover up a disjointed plot.

On a smaller scale the movie runs into more problems, especially where children with AS are concerned. First, the movie opens with the discovery that a pyramid at Giza has been replaced by an inflatable replica. This is discovered when a group of American tourists disembark from a tour bus and a wayward child from the bus falls on the pyramid. The American tourists are portrayed as rude, inconsiderate, uneducated, disruptive, and unconcerned about the needs and comfort of others--especially the ones with southern accents. First of all, I object to that stereotype, both about Americans in general, and especially about Southerners. However, regardless of political beliefs about America's behavior towards other peoples, the fact remains that American children (especially those with AS, who can easily take these things too far) should not be made to feel bad for something over which they have no control. An American-born child has absolutely no control over where s/he was born, and a naturalized child has no control over his/her parents' citizenship decisions.

Another smaller scale problem is the centrality of one-upmanship to the plot. Children are easily led into poor sportsmanship (of which one-upmanship is perhaps the worst characteristic). Children with AS are especially drawn to it, particularly when they harbor fears of their own inadequacy or have experienced bullying. Many video games, computer games and anime programs often nurture this unfortunate trait as well. The last thing our kids need is a movie centered on it.

Overall, I would not recommend Despicable Me even for adults, and think it sets a very poor example for children.

Media Monday: Technology and Education

Technological advancements have proven themselves a real boon to the world of education. And in the special education corner of that world, new technologies have been especially useful. Research and anecdotal evidence alike suggest that students with learning challenges learn more easily from modern technologies and digital media than from more traditional delivery systems. Initially, they are engaged by the novelty of the presentation method, but the real benefit is that new technologies are often more adaptable to the learning needs of individual students in ways that older technologies and methods are not.

This is a typical challenge for the education system. Because students are educated in "batches," the system is necessarily limited in the degree to which education can be individualized. The result? Children who need to learn in ways the system cannot provide are pathologized. But when a method of education is found that can engage these "disabled" students, the students are given an opportunity not formerly available to them.

However, I would like to present a different angle on this particular area of growth in the education field. What does the fact that children have trouble being engaged by interaction between teacher and student say about the skills of the teacher? Mind, this isn't to condemn teachers or belittle the challenges they facing managing a classroom full of children. This question is intended to use teachers as an example of how our society is changing as a whole.

When was the last time you met someone who could tell you a story in such a way that you felt you were there? When was the last time someone introduced a new concept to you in such an effective way that you were inspired to synthesize that new information with older knowledge and come up with a compelling hypothesis of your own--one so intriguing that you knew you just had to do more research? That doesn't happen much anymore.

We are reliant on the written word and upon visual representations to convey information and ideas more than we are reliant on the spoken word (either in lecture or in conversation) or on physical demonstrations.

Historically, before the majority of the population was literate or books were readily available, memorization and story-telling were prized skills. Philosophers and scientists actively studied memory to try to develop new and more effective means of memorization. Such lengthy tracts as The Odyssey, The Iliad, the Bible (especially the Old Testament), and The Histories of Herodotus were intended to be recited dramatically from memory rather than read in books. I don't know about you, dear reader, but I think I would be hard pressed just to memorize the book of Genesis, let alone the whole Old Testament!

With the spread of literacy, memorization became much less important, but story-telling remained something of a folk art. Through the first half or so of the twentieth century, story-telling remained important in that theater (for plays, not movies) was still a very common form of entertainment and people who did public speaking had to rely on their ability to communicate effectively (tell their story) to charm a crowd--no bright lights or make-up, no cue cards, no teleprompter, and the really good speakers memorized their speeches.

In today's world of sound-bites and digital everything, these arts are being lost. However, I do not think they are irrelevant.

Let's get back to technology in the classroom. Part of why students are engaged by it is that they are intrigued by novelty. But what happens when the novelty wears off? Does the engagement go away too? If so, the solution is illusory. Moreover, it means that novelty in general is attractive, not necessarily that a specific kind of novelty is attractive. A teacher who knows how to bring history to life could provide a similar level of novelty, as could one who can explain mathematical concepts in such away that the work feels intuitive to the students. And those are skills that don't require an investment in the newest tech toys every year.

Of course, teachers should take advantage of modern technology too--anything they need to bring their topic to life and reach as many students as possible! And students need to be familiar with technological tools in order to grow into adults who are competitive in the workforce. But I think choices about how to incorporate technology in the classroom should be left more to the teacher, who knows her needs better than anyone else.

In the meantime, I think that aspiring educators, especially those who wish to work with students who have learning challenges, would be well-served by focusing on learning as much as they can about effective story-telling and public speaking. They put on an educational performance five days a week for their students, and they need to know how to make the performance a good one. Exciting props can't do it all.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Media Monday: Sports and Social Skills

I'm sure we've all heard the tired line that having your child participate in a team sport will help "socialization" and build character, teamwork skills, and sportsmanship. While I personally have some doubts about those assertions, I think they bring up an important question: What about watching team sports?

The fact is that a sports team is an hierarchical social environment, and how well the players are able to cope with the social rules of the hierarchy has a lot to do with how well the team will perform. Watching teams play with an eye for how they play can be an excellent exercise for teaching social skills to those who are less than adept.

Like real life, most games provide opportunities for good or bad sportsmanship and effective or ineffective team interaction. Unlike real life, it is incredibly obvious to the observer which is occurring when. Better yet, in many organized sports, the consequences for bad sportsmanship or other unacceptable behavior are immediate and blatant. For example, my husband and I recently watched the soccer World Cup matches. Whenever one player tripped another or otherwise broke a rule, it was immediately called by the referee (using a yellow card, red card system in which each card has real implications for when that player can play next) and the offending play was immediately replayed for viewers--in slow motion or with artificial highlighting if necessary. For the slightly more observant, differences in playing style were pretty apparent, and the cohesiveness of a team related directly to that team's ability to win.

In baseball, the opportunities for poor sportsmanship are more limited, but even more glaring to those who watch the game. And the social consequences for misbehaving players are severe.

In football, while players are definitely more rowdy with each other than in many other games and tempers can sometimes be ignited, a lot of time is spent deciding whether this or that behavior was legal. And a misbehaving team member can lose his team points. (Although watching football is something I recommend with extreme caution, giving the advertising and fan behavior that often surrounds it, and parents with concerns about teaching appropriateness in sexuality may have objections to the viewing of modern professional cheerleaders)

How a golf pro reacts to a misplaced stroke can tell you a lot about that players character, and there are no other team members to draw attention away from a prima donna's tantrum.

Even when players (in any sport) seem to behave badly without consequence, their bad behavior is apparent--a ripe opportunity for a parent and child to discuss appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

Moreover, sports are almost always a safe and appropriate topic of conversation, especially in the context of small talk.

I really recommend finding a way to view televised professional sporting events with your child. The home environment is less overwhelming and more conducive to productive conversation about the game than attending a live game (which can also be fun!). Better yet, dvr the game so you can do "instant replays" as you see fit or fast forward through boring parts of the game or distracting advertising. Ask your child to watch how the players interact and what happens when they break rules. Point out instances that your child misses. Discuss how that relates to real life. Perhaps poor sportsmanship relates to a recent experience with a classmate or is a metaphor for how the child reacts when he doesn't get his way. These are important life lessons, and a clear visual aide can really help drive the point home.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

TV Tuesday: Prince of Persia

Disney's most recent video game adaptation has been the film Prince of Persia. As with any movie based on a video game, I had very low expectations with regards to plot and high expectations with regards to special effects and action film fun. Overall, though, I was disappointed.

The plot was lacking, as I expected, so I was not disappointed in that way, but the poor acting made the fact glaringly obvious. The actors did not mesh well, and their body language was pretty flat. It was apparent much of the time that they were just reciting lines.

The special effects were there, but their quality was far below the standard I have come to expect of Disney and other major film houses. Pirates of the Caribbean this movie is not.

The action sequence are pretty fun, with plenty of running, jumping, chasing, and hand-to-hand combat. And this was the primary strength of the film, especially since the action (even in battle scenes) neatly avoids bloody or gory imagery.

For Aspies, my review is mixed. On the one hand, I like the film because the action is neither graphic nor realistic, and there really is no sexual content (the female character could definitely wear more, but it's nothing worse than we are accustomed to seeing in day-to-day advertising), making the film fairly appropriate for young teens and some preteens.

On the other hand, the poor acting and the bad behavior of some of the characters (for which there is no apparent consequence) reinforces the poor social skills so common among children with AS. Moreover, the transparency of plot and characters does not challenge the Aspie child to see situations or people as being potentially multi-faceted. The bad guys are bad. The good guys are good, even when they behave badly. The damsel in distress is generally annoying and useless, although attractive. There are no surprises.

So, if you want to take your child to a fun movie purely for the sake of entertainment, Prince of Persia is probably a decent choice. If you want to find something with a little redeeming value, move on to something else.