TV family time with your special needs tween and teen

As our children grow from toddlers to tweens, many families enjoy a family TV night watching a show that everyone enjoys. But for many kids with disabilities, it's difficult to decipher the humor of sitcoms or to understand the fast-paced banter of some shows. The rest of the family ends up watching a show together while their child with special needs shuts himself in his room. However, thanks to cable and reality TV, there are a variety of high energy shows to hold your special needs tween or teen's interest.

by Dawn Villarreal, One Place for Special Needs


tv remote PhotoxpressWhy won’t our son/daughter watch our favorite shows?
Children with nonverbal learning disability, learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorder have a hard time picking up the social cues, body language, idioms and innuendos that are the basis of most TV shows.  Children with ADD and ADHD have a tendency to lose interest with shows that take several episodes to build suspense or get to the action.

In contrast, Reality TV shows require no plot to follow.  They are usually high action, show instant replays and do quick recaps after each commercial break.  If you know where to look, many are educational.  But the best part is that the entire family is together, enjoying and talking about the show with one another.

Are you encouraging couch potatoes?
Outdoors and fitness should always take precedence over watching the television.  For some families there are physical limitations that make daily outdoor activities a challenge.  In others, sensory issues or anxieties make going outdoors a stressful event for all family members. 

The ultimate goal is for the family to engage in a pleasurable shared activity.  Siblings who do not have a close relationship with their special needs brother or sister may find some camaraderie with a shared laugh or groan at a show.  And parents can use a favorite TV show to better interact with their special needs child.

Which show is right for my family?
Pick out a show that you think all of your children might enjoy.  Look for shows that allow for good talking points such as overcoming an adversity or guessing who will win.

Just because a show is popular doesn’t mean it’s right for your family. If your child has difficulty with social skills, a show like Survivor, that rewards people for being deceitful and cutthroat, might not be the best show to watch.  Make sure your child understands the difference between real life and reality TV in these situations.

Consider pre-screening shows for children who have generalized anxiety issues.  Animal and true life shows may have potentially scary images and situations. 

For children with special interests, it is entirely possible now to find a show based on their favorite topic.  Check out the links at the end of this article.  Cable channels like the History channel or the Science channel offer a variety of specials in their programming.

Make a show of it
Make family TV time fun.  Pop some popcorn.  Be positive and emphasize the coolness of the show you picked.  For kids that are resistant, make a compromise.  That might be watching the show for two weeks up to 15 minutes.  It might include allowing them to read a book in the same room while everyone is watching the show.  Chances are your child will warm up to the action of the show.  And if not, don’t despair.  Try out a different show.  There are plenty to choose.

Favorite TV picks
These reality TV summaries include, where possible, the recommended age from CommonSense Media along with what makes the show appealing to both you and your child. These shows are seasonal so check your local listing to see if you can watch new episodes or catch it in rerun.

Amazing RaceAmazing Race – CBS
In this family show teams race around the world while competing in physical and mental challenges.  Past seasons have included a contestant with a disability.  Warning, jet lag and lack of sleep can bring out the best and worst in contestants.
Age: 11 and up
Appeal to parents: Different cultures, traditions and exciting locales
Appeal to your tween/teen: Entertaining challenges and guessing which team will make it to the pit stop first.


AFVAmerica’s Funniest Home Videos – ABC
Everyone can enjoy the physical comedy of the many video clips sent in by viewers.  Some videos do show people having accidents so make sure no one tries this at home.
Age: 8 and up
Appeal to parents: Something for everyone
Appeal to your tween/teen: Cute animal videos, bloopers and blunders


AGTAmerica's Got Talent - NBC
It doesn't matter how old you are or how big or small your talent may be. Everyone gets a chance on this modern day talent show. Talent includes magicians, singers, dancers, comedians and variety acts. The majority of verbal critiques are respectful to the contestant as opposed to other reality talent TV shows. Some contestants do not let their disability stand in the way of performing. Warning, a few acts do go for shock value and the show drags with time filler after the initial audition round ups.
Age: 9 and up
Appeal to parents: Something for everyone and overcoming adversity
Appeal to your tween/teen: The buzzer as judges X contestants off the show plus many child acts


BillyBilly the Exterminator – A&E
Billy is the Steve Irwin of vermin. He also dresses like a heavy metal dude.  An expert in bugs and critters, Billy offers humane removal of animals and releases them in the wild. He is extremely kind and respectful to all his clients. High interest as some potential danger always shows itself.
Age: 11 and up
Appeal to parents: Being different is okay, family values (Billy works with his family)
Appeal to your tween/teen: Lots of bugs, snakes and other vermin


BrainRushBrainRush – Cartoon Network
BrainRush is a game show played on a series of roller coasters at Knox Berry Farm.  The host Lamorne Morris surprises kids on the roller coaster to be instant contestants.  They win money if they can answer trivia questions and memory games while riding the coaster.
Age: 6 and up
Appeal to parents: Play along and build on memory skills
Appeal to your tween/teen: Roller coasters!


ChasingChasing Mummies – History channel
This is a special interest show for those who like archaeology, mummies and the ancient pyramids. This show follows an archaeological team led by Egyptologist Dr. Zahi Hawass. Very informative! Warning, Hawass expects perfection from everyone and sometimes comes across as mean to his assistants.
Age: 10 and up
Appeal to parents: Educational
Appeal to your tween/teen: Entertaining and suspenseful for the young archaeologist in your family


DestroyedDestroyed in Seconds – Discovery channel
Awesome explosions of structures, acts of nature and spectacular crashes.  The host explains the cause and effect of the catastrophe and also how communities bounce back from devastation.
Age: 13 and up
Appeal to parents: It’s a guy show that dads can enjoy with their tween or teen.
Appeal to your tween/teen: Things get blown up


Dirty JobsDirty Jobs – Discovery channel
Host Mike Rowe tackles some of the worst jobs in the country and meets some nice people along the way.  It’s gross and engaging at the same time.
Age: 11 and up
Appeal to parents: Encourages teamwork and promotes good attitudes by employees no matter what the job.
Appeal to your tween/teen: It’s funny to see Mike Rowe mess up on the job.


How it's madeHow it’s Made and Factory Made – Science channel
No host, no interviews, this show quite literally shows you how things are made.  Interesting enough for parents while kids will enjoy watching the automation of how things are made.
Age: 7 and up (How it's Made)
Age: 7 and up (Factory Made)
Appeal to parents: Wide variety plus good job showing sequence and processes
Appeal to your tween/teen: Conveyor belts, robotic machines – great for kids who enjoy watching repetitive motion.


It's me or the dogIt’s Me or the Dog – Animal Planet channel
The show introduces families with dogs that have bad behavior.  Host Victoria Stilwell teaches families how to turn bad behavior into good behavior.
Age: 8 and up
Appeal to parents: Teaches responsibility and how changing our behavior can make everyone happy.
Appeal to your tween/teen: Dogs!


MachinesMachines – Science channel
This show explains in great detail how machines like a rollercoaster, printing press, bowling pinsetters, etc. work. 
Age: 10 and up
Appeal to parents: Educational
Appeal to your tween/teen: Great for the young engineer in your family who wants to know how things work


Man-MadeMan Made – National Geographic channel
This show poses more engineering challenges than the Science channel’s Machines such as the background into demolishing a high rise and the inner workings of massive machines.
Age: 8 and up
Appeal to parents: Educational
Appeal to your tween/teen: Great for the young engineer in your family who wants to know how things work


Man vs WildMan vs. Wild – Discovery channel
Host Bear Grylls eats really gross things and shows you how to survive in some of the harshest terrains on the planet.  This show is not the non-stop action of other shows but is high interest.
Age: 10 and up                                                                    
Appeal to parents: Teaches never giving up in the face of adversity
Appeal to your child: Bear eats really gross stuff!


MonsterQuestMonsterQuest – History channel
Researchers use high tech equipment to find and collect evidence of legendary creatures like the Loch Ness monster, Big Foot and others. Evidence is always inconclusive but reenactments and researchers on the hunt make for an interesting show. Warning, not for tweens/teens who get scared very easily.
Age:  9 and up
Appeal to parents: Helps kids understand the scientific method
Appeal to your child:  Monster hunting! Great show for the young cryptozoologist in your family

MythbustersMythbusters – Discovery channel
A perfect show for inquisitive minds and the young engineer in your family.  Each episode, the hosts take a popular myth and determine by using the scientific method whether it is true or not.
Age: 8 and up
Appeal to parents: Helps kids understand the scientific method
Appeal to your child: Lots of crashes and things blowing up


Naked ScienceNaked Science – National Geographic channel
Each episode tackles a different theme such as fireworks, the sun, etc. and explores the history and science behind the topic.
Age: 10 and up
Appeal to parents: Educational
Appeal to your child: Dependent on the topic


NatureNature Untamed – National Geographic channel
This show helps viewers get up close and personal with everything that bites, stalks or waddles. Researchers and biologists are featured working to preserve the environment.
Age: 10 and up
Appeal to parents: Educational
Appeal to your child: Great for the young biologist in your family


Ninja WarriorNinja Warrior – G4 channel - Ninja Warrior is a serious endurance obstacle course set in three stages with a near impossible finish on Mount Midoriyama in Japan.  It shows the camaraderie of athletes who cheer on all challengers as well as their strength and determination.  It is subtitled but you do not need to understand the language to root for these athletes or enjoy the amazingly tough obstacles.
Age: 8 and up
Appeal to parents: Promotes good sportsmanship and exercise
Appeal to your child: Action replays and tough obstacles

Storm ChasersStorm Chasers – Discovery channel
This is a high suspense show about storm chasers with lots of video footage of tornadoes.  A great show for anyone with a special interest in storm systems and tornadoes.
Age: 13 and up
Appeal to parents: A show you can watch together if your child has this special interest.
Appeal to your child: Tornadoes and storms



Wipeout – ABC
While Ninja Warrior is for serious athletes, Wipeout is a silly obstacle course determined to make contestants fall in spectacular ways.  Family members will cringe and yell at the TV as people bounce off big balls and flip off sweepers into water, foam and mud.
Age: 9 and up
Appeal to parents: Groan worthy wipeouts
Appeal to your child: Grown worthy wipeouts and action replays

Share your family TV shows
Please write in with your positive TV family night experiences. What show did you watch and why was it a success? Email to . We'll add a link here to share with families.

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition - Special needs mom Alyssa says, "As far as family viewing for everyone, we've found ABCs Extreme Makeover: Home Edition fits the bill nicely. While we sometimes have to watch what the youngest ones in the house hear about the families' tragedies, overall the kids enjoy watching the old house being torn down and the new house being built up. My oldest son, who's autistic, loves anything with construction and tools (think "Bob the Builder")."

More reading:

Animal Planet - Look here for animal related shows and specials
CommonSense Media - Great website to review and check appropriate age for movies, TV shows and video games
Discovery Channel - Look here for science, history, space and technology shows plus their annual Shark week
History Channel - Look here for American and world history shows and specials
National Geographic - Look here for animals, science and exploration shows and specials
Science Channel - Look here for science, history, space and technology shows and specials

Dawn VillarrealAbout the writer

Dawn Villarreal runs One Place for Special Needs, a national disability resource that lets you find local and online resources, events and even other families in your neighborhood plus thousands of online disability resources! Stay awhile and check out the site. She is also moderator of Autism Community Connection, a Yahoo group for families in Illinois. Reprint permission granted by including: Reprinted with permission from One Place for Special Needs

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