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

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.

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


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



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

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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