Quentin’s newfound love, passion, and enthusiasm is the TV show Blue’s Clues. This warms my heart. I’ll explain why his new favorite thing makes me feel good, and then offer some thoughts as to why it’s so appealing to his autistic brain.
First, know that Quentin’s other passions – corporate logos, ABC News, strange uses for YouTube, the Knuffle Bunny books, Picasso portraits, Ni Hao, Kai Lan – are all still there, in various forms. Quentin’s enthusiasms seem to reach a peak and then fade. In some cases, such as the case of logos, they never really go away. But in other cases, the enthusiasms take a dramatic fade out. (He seems to have turned off of Picasso, for example.) But in general, he becomes really “into” something so intensely and passionately a few times a year that it seems to take over everything he does. Right now, that thing is Blue’s Clues.
It just so happens that in 1998, eighteen years ago, I was the International Coordinator Blue’s Clues. It was a relatively new preschool show on Nickelodeon at the time. While I had been freelancing in production for various children’s television shows up until that point, it was the last production position I would ever hold. Working for that show was a turning point in my personal career trajectory.
Technically, my job was to facilitate international versions of that show, but one fateful week, I was asked to help the Research team because they were short-staffed. The job involved waking up “early” to be at a preschool when it first opened. It involved data collection. I was quickly trained on how to code kids’ reactions to watching the show, and interview them afterwards for specific content learning.
Initially, I disliked this new assignment. What happened to that cushy job where I could show up at 10am? (Ah, the joys of a low-paid glam job in my 20’s!) But one week of interacting with preschoolers and I was hooked; there is something truly incredible about watching a four-year-old light up and yell the correct answer to a television screen. This was true “educational” television; the reason why I was motivated to work in children’s TV from the beginning. I instantly fell in love with curriculum and research from that first exposure.
Also at that time, we at the show were hearing anecdotes about how Blue’s Clues was becoming particularly popular for a few children with autism. We heard stories about how some non-verbal children were suddenly interacting with the screen, piping up to give an answer or fill in a word in a song. These were just one or two anecdotes, if memory serves, but it made the staff proud. I did not have Quentin in my life at that time – I was not even married – so it was just positive news at the time.
Eventually, I decided to get a doctoral degree in cognitive studies in education just so I could continue seeing kids light up at learning from a screen. During grad school, I got married, had my own children, and my research and curriculum work went in other directions.
Just a few months ago, at age 9, Quentin became seriously interested in Blue’s Clues. This is due, in part, to the fact that his favorite streaming video app happens to be NOGGIN – Preschool Shows & Educational Kids Videos, where most of his favorite shows are. (This is an app that costs $5.99 per month, but for my kid, it’s almost a necessity. Not only does it offer all his favorite shows in easy reach and with closed-captioning, but it is also commercial-free. For us, it is worth the cost.) He also watches the show on YouTube. Of course, I could not help but watch him watch the show. It’s been almost two decades since I worked on that show, but I can now finally understand why were hearing all those anecdotes.
Here’s what Quentin seems to love about the show, and what I am guessing many kids with autism seem to be attracted to:
Blue’s Clues has a distinct episode structure. For those who have not seen the show, a brief summary: There is the beginning, when Steve, the only human actor on the show, who acts as Blue’s caregiver – says “hi” to the viewer. (Note: Steve was eventually replaced by another actor, who’s character is Joe, but I’ll be using Steve for simplicity sake here.) He soon discovers a mystery or has a question he asks of his puppy. Then Blue stamps the screen with her paw print, suggesting that they play the Blue’s Clues game to figure out the mystery. Blue then goes around putting her paw print on “clues” on objects. (Strangely, Steve never remembers what direction Blue runs off to, and has to ask the TV viewer. Silly Steve!) Games and other sketches are throughout, with a break for mail time in the middle of the show. It ends when three clues are found; Steve sits in his thinking chair to figure out what she’s trying to communicate. A small celebration at the very end when all the characters wave good-bye.
Quentin seems to love this structure, and knows it well. The structure is calming. It’s predictable. At the same time, there are little changes each time that still make it interesting. For example, Quentin discovered how to fast-forward into each episode just to watch how Steve would wash the big paw print off the screen, roughly two minutes into each episode. Each time, Steve uses something different, such as a feather duster, a rag, or a squeegee… the cleaning objects can get pretty inventive. Sometimes, he does something more interactive like tickles the paw print off or blows it away. It fascinated Quentin to see how the paw print would disappear each time and he would check each episode one at a time, without watching the complete show. I think he likes this predictable nature and appreciates the changes.
Repetitive words and songs
Every show begins with waving “Hi” and ends with waving “Bye.” There are catchy songs throughout (“Here’s the mail, it never fails…” or “We just figured out Blue’s Clues!” are among them.) These repetitive songs and phrases have become a big part of Quentin’s echolalia/ scripting routine as of late. He especially loves the mail song, and likes to check our mail a lot now. The best part is that he is saying “hi” and waving to me more often now. (Although not always when I first see him… it’s a little more random than that.)
In addition, there is one episode that features American Sign Language. When the producers learned that several children really picked up on the ASL they had incorporated (including many with special needs), they decided to incorporate some small signs regularly. Repetitive hand motions seem to be something that Quentin picks up on, even if he is not aware that this is an official language.
Every episode contains a “video letter” that Mailbox delivers in the middle of the show. These are short videos from kids. Quentin seems to pay a lot of attention to them; in fact, he often fast-forwards straight to them, skipping the rest of the show. (The beauty of having all the episodes line up in an app is amazing here. Just a few touches of his finger and he can figure out how to navigate it so quickly.)
As I have watched him watch, I realize that the kids in these videos are essentially modelling play behavior for him! He likes watching what they do in the videos, and will often mimic their behaviors later, such as making up a song with hand motions or leaving “secret messages” for someone else as a game. He is picking up toys and interacting us with us in ways that mimic what the children in these video letters do.
Non-verbal star of the show
It took me a while to figure this out, but it dawned on me recently that perhaps Quentin loves the show so much because the character of Blue is essentially non-verbal. This, of course, does not mean she cannot communicate. In fact, to the contrary! She barks all the time in a way that allows you to understand her. Sometimes Quentin reads the closed-captioning for what she is saying out loud. He loves to say “barks happily” when he is mimicking a scene, scripting the show.
This is not the first non-verbal character that Quentin has become fond of. Curious George is another TV and book character that he likes a lot. While Quentin does know how to talk, his speech is not quite conversational still, and I think he connects to the non-verbal utterances of communication that Blue and Curious George have to offer. It makes total sense to me.
Now, I’m not going to lie. I am THRILLED that Quentin finally loves Blue’s Clues, a show that I was a part of almost two decades ago! However – he is nine years old, and this is a show intended for preschoolers. It’s okay, though. This is where he is developmentally and emotionally.
The best part? This kid, who normally hates to write or use any kind of drawing implements, got so excited when I purchased a handy-dandy notebook and clue stickers, that he started spontaneously trying to draw in the notebook! Sure, he can’t write his name legibly but he’ll work on drawing objects if it means that he can mimic Steve. Win one for occupational therapy during play time! I’ll leave you with this cute video of his attempt to draw a refrigerator in his handy-dandy notebook.