Last weekend, I was casually listening to NPR while doing a million other things at home when suddenly something made me stop in my tracks: Did they just mention something called the ‘Autism Channel’? I dropped whatever it was that I was doing and listened more closely. Sure enough – I was right. Last weekend, NPR’s On the Media had a segment about the Autism Channel. A whole channel devoted to autism? Tell me more!
The network’s flagship show, I Am Autistic, is hosted by Daniel Heinlein, who has Aspergers. In the radio segment I heard, Heinlein described how when he was young he just wanted to watch the same commercials on a loop, over an over again. Now, he has a job interviewing people on and off the spectrum about their lives for this show. Hearing him say that touched me. That is exactly what Quentin likes to do – watch advertising segments over and over again. These people, creating this show – and this network – understand my boy!
That is indeed part of the mission of the Autism Channel. As they state on their website: “All of our programming is sensory-friendly. We try to shy away from explosions, loud noises, extended series of frenetic brightness and color changes, and anything that could trigger an epileptic attack, because our audience has a higher sensitivity to these things.”
The Autism Channel launched last September, and currently you need to have a Roku Streaming Player to watch it. (This means I have not seen it yet, so this is not an official “review”.) That may change in the future, but for now the “on demand”-style set-up works well for the content they have. Which, I should say, is mostly NOT for children with autism, unfortunately. Looking at their programming line-up, I can see that most of their content is geared for parents hoping to navigate treatments, behaviors, and other issues around autism.
I got in touch with Jerry Trowbridge, the Executive Producer for the Autism Channel, and asked him about their programming. He admitted that the shows they have don’t cover everything they would like to. He told me, “We have a lot of talking head shows that typically feature neurotypical professionals that are aimed at delivering pure information generally for other neurotypicals involved with people on the spectrum.” Of course, this is not what they envision. Their preference is to have more entertainment and children’s shows aimed directly at people with autism, with a preference to shows created by people with autism.
Jerry thinks of having a good representation of people with autism on television is a civil rights issue. “When he was chairman of the FCC, William Kennard delivered a speech in which he talked about seeing a black face on television when he was a child, and how unusual and empowering that was. His whole family would flock to the living room to watch. We feel the same way about the lack of autistic people on television today, people on the spectrum are treated the way people of color were treated on the overwhelmingly white television of the 1950′s.”
At this point in time, the Autism Channel is completely self-funded, but they do intend to have advertising to support them soon. As Trowbridge put it, “We think this audience is difficult to reach. There’s an increasing number of niche advertisers that have no way to reach folks in the autism community, and when we get big enough, general-interest sponsors will also be interested in our audience, because folks with kids on the spectrum don’t have a lot of time for leisure video viewing.”
In my opinion, advertising is going to be a tricky thing to navigate for this channel. As Daniel Heinlein pointed out (above), many people with autism find commercials more appealing than the intended content. I certainly understand the monetary need for them, but I do hope they are a bit more imaginative in delivering sponsored messages. Perhaps product placement might be a better choice in this situation, for example!
What kind of programming and commercials would you like to see on the Autism Channel?