The Unexpected Way ‘Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood’ is Helping My 8 Year Old Autistic Son

Image: PBS Kids
Image: PBS Kids

In our house, viewing Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood usually starts something like this. The show clicks on, the music starts. My daughter, 3, starts dancing in anticipation. My son, 8, with high-functioning autism, starts whining and complaining that it’s the most terrible show in the world. Then it starts, and they’re both silent and rapt for the duration.

When I first saw ads for the show, I was a little reluctant. Riffing on Mister Rogers? With cartoons? It felt a little sacrilegious. Then I learned that the show was not just a rehash of Mister Rogers, my most favorite kid’s show, but a collaboration with people like Angela Santomero from Blue’s Clues. For our son Liam, Blue’s Clues was pretty much his favorite show in the world during his toddler years, in spite of being a very picky TV watchers (the show didn’t often feature his favorite thing in the world: cars). What I’ve always loved about Blue’s Clues is that it’s rooted in psychology, treating kids not as dumb little monkeys in need of entertainment, but as growing human beings in need of education and direction. It’s a lot to ask for a TV show, but it’s worked.

There’s a great NPR piece about the show that I caught when it aired, and this quote sums up what makes the approach so special:

“They developed a whole curriculum based on Fred’s research and teaching,” says Linda Simensky, vice president of children’s programming at PBS. “It’s very carefully designed for a certain age group to get the rules of how the world works–to see what happens when things go right and when things go wrong.”

But that said, I’m going to admit, after viewing a few of the episodes I wasn’t a huge fan and didn’t quite get the hype. The show is cute and simplistic, employing many of the “play along” techniques Blue’s Clues became so famous for. Every lesson is a song, teaching kids ways to remember common solutions for every day problems.

That changed very quickly.

Learning Through Songs and Repetition

What started happening with those lessons, though, rather stopped my husband and me in our tracks. Many of Liam’s most common challenges come from tantrums. Autistic tantrums. That’s when, no matter what happens, the tantrum continues and continues–I think his record is three hours–regardless of the outcome. In these moments he’s in a red zone, and there’s very little we can do to get him back to the present outside of just waiting for it to be over.

One day, he had a particularly bad red zone tantrum, and he hurt a lot of feelings–including his sister’s. I found myself giving him advice from Daniel Tiger’s neighborhood: “It’s important that you don’t just say you’re sorry–say sorry, and ask how you can make it better. Being sorry is about more than words, it’s actions, too.”

He did. Even if a little grudgingly.

Then a few days later, Michael and I were having a disagreement. Not a full blown argument, but it was clear that we were both very frustrated. Our daughter Elodie came up to us, put her little hand in mine, and sang, “When you’re feeling frustrated, take a step back and ask for help.”

Michael and I goggled at each other. Did she just use Daniel magic on us? She did.

Parenting a kid who doesn’t listen and spirals out of control is hard on any day. And finding way to remain calm as a parent, let alone as the kid going through it, is perilous. We forget (and many other adults do, too) that while he looks and speaks like a big kid, when it comes to reasoning and social skills, especially in times of stress, he’s like a toddler. As I once read in a book about kids with these kind of challenges, being a parent to an exceptional kid means sometimes being their frontal lobe. Now, I don’t have time to be my own frontal lobe let alone his some days. But Daniel Tiger helps.

“Wow,” said to Michael one afternoon. “I think Daniel Tiger is helping us with Liam.”

He Likes It, He Really Likes It

Image: PBS Kids; Katerina and Daniel
Image: PBS Kids; Katerina and Daniel

Then, one day, Liam turned to us and said, apropos of nothing. “I think Katerina is autistic; she’s my favorite. She has a hard time with things sometimes, and she likes ballet more than anything.” Well, that’s interesting.

Our daughter Elodie loves Daniel, and she sings the potty song (“When you’ve got to go potty, stop and go right away. Flush and wash and be on your way!”) every time she goes to the bathroom. Liam’s aware of what we’re doing on some level, but we’ve found that the sound, short advice can really cut through some of the worst of his behaviors.

Short, helpful strategies, based in real research and proven techniques. For days I’m too tired to remember what to do when Liam is going off the rails because the cream cheese was spread wrong on his bagel (true story) I can take a deep breath (take my own step back) and calmly translate the words of Daniel Tiger: “Take a step back, Liam. I can help. What do you want me to do?” He might roll his eyes at me, but it often stops him in his tracks and in this instance he doesn’t hit me or shout or stomp away. He says, “Can you get me a knife? That way I can fix it. Or maybe you can if I can’t.”

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is streaming on Netflix right now.

Natania is a member of the Netflix Stream team.

Natania Barron is a Gryffindor, a Took, and a Greyjoy (mostly because of the squid).