How to co-view with a child who has autism

Family Watching TVAs I explained in my last post, I have been a proponent of co-viewing for quite some time; in fact, my old blog, The Co-viewing Connection, offers some tips on how to co-view with typically-developing children. However, once Quentin came into my life, I realized that the co-viewing experience is quite different with a child with autism. It’s high time that I tweaked my tips for this other kind of co-viewing.

But first, let’s take a step back. What exactly is co-viewing? Simply put, co-viewing – or “joint media engagement” – is simply sharing a screen experience with someone. For parent-child co-viewing experiences, there are many benefits: a sense of closeness/ intimacy/ bonding, as well as a potential learning experience – for both the child and the parent! Co-viewing can take place in front of any kind of screen that is showing media: a television, a movie screen, a computer, or even an iPad or other touchscreen. (Sometimes, I lump the idea of game-playing into this idea, but call it “co-playing”… this is where the term “joint media engagement” is a perhaps a little better for covering all the bases.) As Ron Suskind explained in his book, Life, Animated, a true interactive co-viewing experience can be really life-changing!

Here are my basic tips on how to effectively co-view with your child who has autism:

1. Get comfy with your child

This might seem obvious, but I think many parents skip this first step. I’ve had many parents tell me that they are co-viewing with their child when they are prepping dinner in the kitchen and they can see their child about twenty feet away in the living room. No, this is not real co-viewing. Proximity counts! If you are going to do this right, sit down at a comfortable distance in the same space with your kid, like on a couch or a nearby chair. Cuddling is optional… but sometimes appreciated. This closeness validates their screen time as important stuff, and also gives you some quality time with your kids.

2. Respond to verbal prompts from the screen with a verbal response

Is Dora asking you a question? Then answer her! That’s right, folks… as dorky as you may feel about this, it really does make a difference if you talk to your television when prompted. Those of you who are familiar with the interactive type of preschool television programs on Nick Jr. or PBS will no doubt already know that most of them have characters who pose questions directly to the viewer, or encourage you to participate in some way.  (I’m talking about shows like Blue’s Clues, Ni Hao, Kai Lan, Dora the Explorer, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, or Team Umizoomi, among others.) While it might not be the style of TV watching you grew up with, for your kids this is par for the course.  Play along!  Count when they want you to count, say the magic word with them, sing the songs that you know.  The good interactive shows out there are the ones that have you singing, repeating and playing along in ways that have the learning embedded in them.

When you do this, you are modeling conversation and appropriate social interaction for your child. Speech and language might not be his strong suit, but if you do this often enough, you may find that he joins in with you. Kids with autism often need more prompting than most, so this can be an important part of screen time for them.

3. Consider giving your child control

remoteWhen my children were young, we hid the remote from them. We found that Quentin, especially, wanted to press the buttons and change the channels. This annoyed everyone in the room, so we simply took the remote control away. But eventually, we gave in and let him control what he sees. It started out as an experiment on my part, but it became clear that television-viewing was much more enjoyable for him this way.

It’s very interesting to watch him use it, and I think he has evolved over the years. He used to flip through channels, but now he sort of knows what he wants. He will use the pause button to pause the action. He will rewind and watch things. On the iPad, it’s even easier for him to manipulate what he sees because there is a time/ progress bar below the video. This interface was naturally intuitive for Quentin to pick up on, and he uses it a lot.

I urge you to set aside all preconceived notions of how we should watch videos (in a linear way) and watch what happens when your child takes over. You may find that this is a conversation waiting to happen. You also gain some valuable insight into your child.

4. Ask your own questions

A big part of the co-viewing experience should be having short bursts of conversation about what you see. The questioning should be at your child’s level of viewing. So, for example, if your child does not have a lot of language, questions can be about simply naming what they see, such as “What do you see?” or “What is she doing?” Children with higher levels of language should be encouraged to answer more open-ended questions, such as “Why do you think he’s doing that?” or “What do you think is going to happen next?” Asking questions is a good way to connect your child to prior experiences. You can ask things like, “Remember when we went to an amusement park like that?” or “Do you know how that feels? It once happened to you!”

In my home, I’ve been co-viewing with my kids for quite some time. So much so, that they’ve started to ask me questions; I don’t even need to prompt them! This has been a great way to communicate and interact with Quentin.

Here’s a co-viewing video I took about a year ago, when we were watching a Curious George movie on the Netflix app. At this point, Quentin was just learning to read, so he often wanted clarification on words. (It helps that the words were also logos and signs – lots of motivation there for him!) Note that I wouldn’t always answer him; I often turn the question around to see if he can demonstrate his own thoughts.

5. Follow your child’s lead

Quentin mimicking an episode of "Ni Hao, Kai Lan"

Quentin mimicking an episode of “Ni Hao, Kai Lan” that involves camping

In the book Life, Animated, the whole Suskind family ends up acting out Disney movies with Owen. It brings him great joy, and it makes the family feel good that they are finally connecting with Owen. I am finding that recently, Quentin, too, often wants to “act out” what he sees on TV. This might be during the show, but it might be after viewing, too. A few months ago I noted his love of pretending to be Kai Lan; this has continued with other television shows. He usually feeds me the lines to say, and sometimes manipulates my arms to be in certain positions. Once, this involved leading me into a room with a closet to act out a scene where the mom helps a child get dressed! I consider this kind of role playing to be real learning for him. He is so happy to re-enact what he sees, especially when he has me join him.

6. Talk about what you watched together when it’s over

Once you co-view with your child, you will have a shared language and experience. You can take that experience one step further by discussing what you saw at a later time. You could be driving somewhere when the subject of that video comes up again. You might find that comparing a hard situation to what you saw in a video is the best metaphor for your child to understand how to overcome it. Videos are powerful tools! Keep your co-viewing experiences in mind for re-connecting with your child.


Those are my tips – what are yours?