As both a huge Mr Rogers fan and the mother of a child on the autism spectrum, I was thrilled to learn that The Fred Rogers Company had put together a new DVD called Friends and Feelings: Helping Children with Autism in Social and Emotional Learning. The DVD features four classic episodes of the show plus helpful introductions for parents and professionals. The episodes, “It’s Very Hard to Wait,” “Ups and Downs of Friendship,” “Learning About Sharing,” and “Learning Self-Control,” are each gems, and the DVD as a whole is both practically helpful and emotionally moving, a veritable treasure-house of tips and inspiration for children with autism and their families, teachers, and therapists. I was honored when Alan Friedman of the Fred Rogers Company agreed to answer my questions about the DVD and offer further encouragement and hope for autistic children and those who love and work with them.
1) How did the idea to do a Mister Rogers DVD focused on autism come about?
The Fred Rogers Company has long heard from parents and teachers of children with autism about the benefits of watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Then, friends of the company who work with children with autism began urging us to make the program available directly to children with autism and other special needs. We also were motivated by the growing body of research on the effectiveness of video modeling (i.e., observing appropriate behaviors and then practicing them in real-life situations) as a tool for helping children with autism learn social skills.
2) What challenges were involved in putting it together?
We wondered if we would find that young viewers who are new to the program today, whether or not they have autism, would find it too slow, too calm, or too otherwise old-fashioned to be interesting. But the project is confirming that children, particularly children with autism, continue connecting with it in powerful ways.
3) How did you select the episodes to include and the themes or topics to focus on?
We gathered input from numerous professionals and parents to determine where there is the greatest overlap between important but challenging skills for children with autism and themes that are central to Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Then, we developed a list of episodes in which Fred and his friends and puppets talk, sing, and play games about these skills in engaging and memorable ways. We chose a final four episodes that are longstanding favorites among all children: “It’s Very Hard to Wait,” “Ups and Downs of Friendship,” “Learning About Sharing,” and “Learning Self-Control.”
4) Tell us a little about the experts interviewed on the DVD and how they came to the project.
Pittsburgh is home to a wealth of eminent professionals dedicated to children with autism. Pittsburgh is also something of a small world. Mark Strauss, a developmental psychologist, is a friend of a few staff members at The Fred Rogers Company. With Martin Lubetsky, I recently served on a local disability services task-force. Through Martin, I met his wife, Michelle Lubetsky, a behavioral analyst and special education consultant. And I learned about the work of Stacy Porter Smith, a social skills therapist, and Terry Sheffey, a community outreach coordinator, at an autism conference at Slippery Rock University. I want to thank these commentators and the many other contributors to the project.
5) What has the reaction to the DVD been like?
Support from local foundations was intended to fund the distribution of 5,000 copies throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania. We wound up distributing 12,300 copies through 20 very motivated partners, autism service organizations that are using and distributing the DVDs in their home visits, classrooms, social skills camps, and other programs. We haven’t yet collected a lot of feedback, but viewers seem to be responding very positively.
6) Did Mister Rogers ever speak or write about autism to your knowledge? Did he ever correspond or work with famed autism expert Stanley Greenspan?
Fred did not speak or write about autism. But he spent time with a great many children with autism who came to meet him and visit the TV studio. There is a wonderful article that first appeared in Esquire, in which Tom Junod writes about Fred visiting for 20 minutes with an autistic boy who had come, with his father, all the way to Pittsburgh from Boise, Idaho. The boy had never spoken, until one day he said, “X the Owl.” He had never looked his father in the eye until one day his father had said, “Let’s go to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.” By the time he met Fred, the boy was speaking and reading.
7) Why are Mister Rogers’ approach and sensibility so valuable and helpful for children with autism and those who care for or teach them?
The program is valuable and helpful by virtue of what Fred has to say and how he says it, both of which correspond to the learning needs and styles of children with autism. Fred and his neighbors talk and sing all day every day about feelings, appropriate social behaviors, and thinking about others. They live in a world defined by very comforting routines. And unlike so many other producers of children’s media, Fred kept the pacing calm and the special effects to a minimum. He always made eye contact. He and his interactions with children are wonderful models for adults.
8) Are there plans to release more episodes presented and introduced in this way, on autism or other subjects?
We hope to continue re-purposing the Neighborhood in this way and learning from viewers about how to make the collection as useful as possible.
9) Can you think of a quotation from Mister Rogers that you think would especially help a child with autism? His or her parents? His or her peers in learning to accept their autistic classmate?
These words from Fred may be meaningful to a child with autism:
“You are a very special person. There is only one like you in the whole world. There’s never been anyone exactly like you before, and there never will be again. And people can like you exactly as you are.”
These words may be helpful to his or her parents:
“What’s been important in my understanding of myself and others is the fact that each one of us is so much more than any one thing. A sick child is much more than his or her sickness. A person with a disability is much, much more than a handicap. A pediatrician is more than a medical doctor. You’re much more than your job description or your age or your income or your output.
“If the day ever came when we were able to accept ourselves and our children exactly as we and they are, then, I believe, we would have come very close to an ultimate understanding of what ‘good’ parenting means. It’s part of being human to fall short of that total acceptance—and often far short. But one of the most important gifts a parent can give a child is the gift of accepting that child’s uniqueness.”
And these thoughts may be helpful to his or her peers in learning to accept their autistic classmate:
“What is essential is invisible to the eye. When we see someone who looks or behaves differently from what’s familiar to us, it’s possible to feel a little shy, scared, curious, or awkward. I know how much I’ve struggled to look with my heart and not with just my eyes. One of life’s joys is discovering that we can be open to new experiences that at first seem strange or even scary. It’s exhilarating to find that the barriers that seem to separate us from other people begin to vanish when we take the time to get to know those people. That’s the way it is with real friends.”
If you are interested in “Friends and Feelings,” you can order a copy directly from the nonprofit Fred Rogers Company. All proceeds support work that advances and extends Fred Rogers’ philosophy and values.