Rudolf Steiner To Walt Disney: education and the spectrum of choice

walt disney 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.

rudolf picIt’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.

steiner classroomAlthough 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

walt on animationOn 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’.

snow white and appleBecause 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.

bambi fireFor 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.

lion king and scarFinally, 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’

dopey ears2It 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.

pinocchio underwaterThis 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).

nemoWhile 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 (source of image of Steiner classroom unknown but appreciated).

18 thoughts on “Rudolf Steiner To Walt Disney: education and the spectrum of choice

  1. Disney and electronics play the same roles for my autistic brother. He is always drawing the characters and the detail is astounding. Though he does learn from them in his own manner.

    He didn’t really understand the concept of writing either until the computer. I got so sick of pulling up photos and screenshots for him that I forced my brother to type the words himself. It was like a Helen Keller moment. From that day on he understood that letters and writing represented sounds as well as real life objects.


    • Hi there – good to hear from you and interesting to hear about your brother and using the computer for writing. I love your description of a ‘Helen Keller moment’. I found an old video clip of her recently and was very struck by the resilience – it made me think about working with Dylan and needing some of that resilience. What you say about letters and sound as well as objects is really interesting…


      • He used to copy out the titles of his favorite Disney movies. However, he always took such care to match the script and font. At that time, if the title was written in a different font he wouldn’t recognize it. He couldn’t understand the purpose of writing but he realized the intrinsic artwork of writing. He finally learned otherwise, but I imagine that his mind still comprehends the world in a fundamentally different manner than most individuals.

        I always laugh at our different pronunciations of the phrase “Zoo Tycoon.” (His favorite computer game) He insists that it is pronounced Zoo KYTOON while I say otherwise. He looks at me like I’m crazy when I try to correct him.


  2. That is so interesting – not recognising scripts and fonts. Dylan doesn’t recognise letters yet and I suspect the issue is exactly that; every time he encounters a letter in a different handwritten form or font it is as if for the first time. He can recognise that something is ‘writing’ but in no more detail than that. ‘Artwork’ is an interesting way of thinking about it. The letters on Dylan’s door which spell his name are the only ones he really engages with as a representation of something rather than the obects themselves (as art, say).


  3. Hi there! Thanks for reading and for the follow. If your son is also 19 then perhaps like me you will have years of film behind you? Dylan has been watching some of his favourite films virtually every week since he was three! That is a lot of viewings. I have still managed to avoid watching most of them through somehow or other 🙂


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  6. for me, it’s like a sensory deprivation tank, unless there are people anywhere hitting the sides of the pool–though I can screen that sound out if I am not overdone

    once I am calm, I can be open and accept the water like hugs
    i can open up and enjoy the glide of the water against me
    I can move gracefully without really having to sequence
    it took me a while to understand that the graceful movement served a purpose to hold me up

    i know other autties who hold their heads under water ignoring the brain’s idea to lift up head, so that they can listen to that sound, the one I do not like at all

    I used the disney to help the kiddos to copy emotions and then to practice identifying it in others. The OT laughed and told me ‘normal’ people don’t have to be taught and that I’d been giving them natural therapy for quite some time. I said yeah, how do you think I got them back to speaking? if they wanted the video they had to sign or gesture or SOME form of communicating with me. The reward was more learning, i’m sneaky like that 🙂

    I took images of people, and cartoons along with disney stills–which I later learned helped them to generalize what they got from the disney, and put them into little flip books or piles

    I put the supplies out and they had to cross midline and such while on the peanut ball. I didn’t know all of that was OT at the time. I just thought that was good teaching and parenting. Z got his words back with the french words I taught him, it was odd we speak English. shrugs 🙂


    • This is just SO interesting Elisa. I had forgotten this, but it reminds me of how when Dylan was very young I went to my local swimming pool and tried to imagine what it was about water he loved so much, and how he might feel when he was in it. Actually, I wrote a poem about that experience which was included in my first book but which it seems I had almost forgotten. The thing that struck me most at the time was how the acoustics in the swimming pool were so weird and echoey, and how it felt like a tunnel of muffled sound. Your comment put me back into that sensory experience of language being distorted by the water and glass and heat of the swimming pool environment. I had just so forgotten that. Thank you.So now if I piece that together with Dylan’s more recent behaviour of holding his head under water I can see that it might be a sort of ‘hug’ or attempt to get the vestibular balance that people like Temple Grandin have described. You describe things that sound very familiar to me – yes, I’ve done sneaky stuff like that to encourage Dylan to communicate with me. When he was very small I made lots of ‘teaching videos’, getting my daughter and step-daughter to hold up pictures and signs of key objects. The girls had a lot of fun making them and Dylan used to love to watch these videos. You taught french words? That’s so interesting to hear too – my daughter has turned into a linguist and speaks french all the time. I used to tell her not to speak to D in French, but maybe I needn’t have worried so 🙂


  7. Disney film for children have always fascinated me. As an adult, I see that they teach what the bad and the good are, and I think that they are a very good educational means for any children. I do not have may own children, but I do not want my future children to see on-screen violence and other inappropriate images that would affect their development negatively. Disney has created a lot of beautiful films and I am going to use them to help them grow up into good individuals. I hope your boy will not get bored with them and be happy. Best wishes from Lithuania.


    • Hello to you in Lithuania 🙂 Thank you for reading and for your comment. I do agree with you – although I wasn’t previously a fan of Disney at all, when I watch Dylan enjoying a favourite film I am often struck by the simplicity and gentleness of the material and of my son’s response. This is so very far away from the violence and ugliness that other people his age (and younger) are exposed to. There are so very many worse things my son could be watching. The fact he is relatively unaware of the media and society, coupled with an enduring love of films aimed at much younger children, gives my son an innocence and happiness that society tends not to value in adults, but I think would do well to. Best wishes to you from England!


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