I don’t remember exactly how old Dylan was when I realised that the only thing he was interested in was watching Disney videos but he must have been less than two years. Dylan’s films, books and CDs have been a constant presence throughout his life and at 19 they continue to be his main interest.
It’s taken me a long time to feel comfortable with Disney. I embarked on parenthood with other ideas: I had been determined that my children would play with simple toys and natural materials; occupy themselves in creative and imaginative pursuits; spend time outdoors; and engage with handcraft and art activities. Electronic gadgets, computers and television sets were to be avoided or strictly limited. I’ve no doubt that many parents of autistic children will be amused by this description. However, for many years I’d been attracted to the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner which emphasised a curriculum based on the creative arts and the development of imagination in young children through free play.
Although my preference was for Steiner education I realised that Dylan’s diagnosis might make it less than ideal so enrolled him in a Montessori Nursery where the structured approach was said to suit some autistic children. My daughter, meanwhile, attended a Steiner Kindergarten and I assisted there when Dylan was at nursery. I remember one day a child brought Thomas the Tank Engine slippers to wear which lit up and ‘tooted’ as he ran around (the sort Dylan might like). I watched the Kindergarten Leader become increasingly exasperated by the sound-and-light show until, eventually, she removed the batteries. My hunch that Dylan would not find a Steiner environment easy was probably right, I thought to myself.
Learning with Disney
On Dylan’s journey through the education system he has travelled almost as far as possible from my original ideological position. Apart from the Montessori Nursery and a year in an integrated resource, Dylan has attended special schools where his teachers have (quite rightly) focused on his key interests in order to motivate him for learning. This has inevitably meant that Dylan has had rich access to electronic gadgets, computers and television sets while there has been considerably less emphasis on wooden toys and natural materials, creative and imaginative play, and handcraft and art activities. Dylan’s educational environment may have been quite unlike a Steiner school but I’m fairly sure that it was, nonetheless, an effective learning environment. For children such as Dylan, Disney resources can be the most appropriate approach to motivating and engaging pupils in educational settings; certainly over the years Dylan appears to have been ‘learning with Disney’.
Because he has watched Disney films repeatedly, Dylan is familiar with details of plot and character which can be used to extend his social and emotional learning. I have used Disney characters to work on Dylan’s understanding of family; this not only reinforces social roles but helps Dylan make sense of the world. Although it is easy to criticise the stereotypical social roles portrayed in Disney films, for Dylan these have been a useful vehicle for understanding some of his most fundamental relationships (mother, sister, teacher, friend).
Because of the exaggerated but simple characterisation, Disney films are also useful for identifying emotional states. And because the Disney plots have moral content they can be used to rehearse concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and to help Dylan to recognise danger and harm. Some of the content in Disney films, particularly fairy tales narratives, have been criticised as inappropriate. Scenes such as the Wicked Queen giving Snow White the apple, however, Bambi running from fire in the forest and the Lion King being challenged by Scar, all capture Dylan’s attention enough to capitalise on his interest and exploit this for purposes of learning. It is Dylan’s interest in Disney films which is key here; until I tried to address this social and emotional learning through film, Dylan had shown no interest in recognising or identifying feelings or relationships.
For other children, of course, this learning emerges from a variety of narrative formats; I remember watching the children make meaning of oral storytelling while at Kindergarten, for example. But this is not a method which works for Dylan. As a visual learner, Dylan responds to the colours and caricatures of animation. As well as vivid moving pictures, repeated viewings have been a key to learning for Dylan who seems to approach each new film by layering information. The first time Dylan watches a film he will often only sample it; the next time he may sample a different section or reinforce the sequence he has already sampled; the third time builds another section; and so on. This layering proceeds over what may be many screenings before Dylan has a complete map of the film. This is a slow process of accretion and very different to the way many of us watch films (how often do we watch a film more than once let alone the hundreds of viewings which Dylan has made of his films?). However, once the process is complete the film is embedded in Dylan’s memory. In terms of potential for learning, this is a tremendous resource.
Finally, as well as visual content and repeated viewing of content, control of content seems to be important. Dylan likes to direct his viewing; I think he likes the predictability and reliability of a film which always happens in the same order, at the same pace and with the same voices (compared to a human being reading a story book slightly differently each time). I’d say that it is these four elements – interest, visual content, repetition and control – which particularly support Dylan’s learning and which Disney is so good at providing.
‘It’s Off to Work we Go’
It took me a while to realise that Dylan was learning with Disney, especially as the learning can be unplanned and not always what I might want to teach. For example, for years Dylan had ‘pulling people’s ears’ identified in his school behaviour chart, with a series of actions and targets set for re-directing and discouraging this behaviour. I was always puzzled by the ear-pulling which Dylan seemed to do spontaneously and usually to people he liked. I made the observation that while the school may regard Dylan’s ear-pulling as inappropriate, I thought it was actually an act of affection. Then one day, walking into the room while Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was playing, I caught a scene in which Dopey holds his lips up to Snow White for a kiss as the dwarfs leave for work one day. Snow White, preferring to kiss the top of Dopey’s head, takes him by the ears in order to re-orientate his face to the floor so she can do this. Suddenly the penny dropped; this tender gesture between Snow White and Dopey was one which Dylan had copied; he took people he loved by both ears, just as he had seen Snow White do to Dopey.
A much more worrying example of Dylan learning from Disney films took me a while to figure out. Dylan presents a particularly high risk around water as although he cannot swim he lacks sense of danger and in the past has flung himself fully-clothed into deep water and had to be rescued. Around any body of water (harbours, lakes, rivers, reservoirs) I have to keep a very close eye on Dylan. So I wasn’t overly-surprised – though I was very alarmed – to find Dylan submerged in his bath water one day. I had left Dylan only briefly but this was long enough for me to find him under the water, holding his own head down. That day I yanked Dylan up out of the bath water coughing and spluttering; I resolved to not leave him alone in the bathroom, regretting the surveillance and lack of privacy for Dylan which this meant. Another similar incident saw Dylan’s support plan updated to showers rather than baths; again, a huge loss for Dylan who loves his bath times.
This desire to be underwater started to spread to other watery contexts. On holiday Dylan would throw himself to the bottom of the sea, alarmingly. When I took him swimming he would spend the entire session attempting to go to the bottom of the pool. As a strong swimmer I wasn’t unduly worried about the behaviour in itself; what worried me was that it seemed to be based on a desire to drown himself, rather than to swim.
I chanced, eventually, on the explanation for Dylan’s behaviour which was, again, to be found in a Disney film (or, as it turned out, in a variety of Disney films): Nemo involves various underwater sequences where characters are miraculously able to breathe, talk and live without coming to any harm. Another penny-dropping moment; Dylan was trying to copy the behaviour of characters in his favourite films who he loved and wanted to be like. Further research revealed that a scene in Pinocchio takes place underwater and a crucial scene in a favourite Studio Ghibli film, Earthsea, also involves an underwater sequence. Unfortunately, these underwater scenes are always fairly glamorous; the characters have great adventures and it seems to me undergo some sort of transformation while in the water (an appropriate image, I suppose, for being re-born).
While Dylan throwing himself under water and pulling people’s ears may not be what I’d choose or encourage, they are illustrations of effective learning arising from motivation and consolidation through repeated exposure to the learning prompt. I am left wondering what else Dylan has learned through film and animation? Perhaps there are other things he does which I don’t understand because I haven’t got his intimate knowledge of the source material?
Bracketing the handcrafts
At the end of Dylan’s school career I was fairly confident that the decisions I’d made about his educational provision up to the age of 19 had been appropriate. This didn’t, however, stop me from revisiting these choices as Dylan prepared to leave school. Researching provision in my area I was delighted to find a community based on Steiner principles which offered education to adults with learning disabilities and autism. The first visit I made to the community was alone. Everything about the visit charmed me; the activities included handcrafts such as weaving, pottery and basket-making as well as woodwork and horticulture. The classrooms and living areas were beautifully decorated with the distinctive Steiner colours, fabrics and natural materials. Community meals were sourced from the allotments and gardens. I walked around the centre that day as if in a honey-daze; it was so perfect I would have happily lived there myself.
I visited again soon after with Dylan. It never occurred to me that anything could interrupt the dream but – and you can perhaps tell what’s coming – I had an awakening. Dylan very quickly grasped what was on offer at the community – or, more importantly, what was not – and exited at high speed, heading straight for the car park. It wasn’t so much that Dylan had little interest in the activities on offer as that he couldn’t find any evidence of the things he did have an interest in: no TV Lounge or Computer room and no evidence of TVs in bedrooms either. Dylan’s protest that day was very unsettling and frustrating for me but when I thought about it later – from Dylan’s perspective – I realised that it had been ridiculous of me to shortlist a placement which wouldn’t support the one thing which mattered to Dylan more than anything else in the world. Dylan’s special interest is film and Disney is his passion: how could I possibly have ignored this?
This experience reminded me of how difficult it can be to bracket our own preferences when making choices on behalf of our children. However, bracket them I must because it is Dylan’s life, not mine; while I can’t, and should not try to, overturn my values and beliefs when making decisions, I do need to filter these through the lens of Dylan’s interests and preferences. Dylan’s life would be different and, I suspect, less happy without the gift of Disney; it would be wrong for me to take that from him.
Images via Disney and QuotesDump.com (source of image of Steiner classroom unknown but appreciated).