The Weird Surprises of Blue’s Clues and ASD.

Blue and her Paw print.

When my son was about a year old, he started to watch Blue’s Clues every day.  The premise behind it was that a cartoon puppy would help his human friend, Steve, a real person in a semi-cartoonish background.  They would play a very simplified version of a sort of charades since the puppy could not speak.  Instead, the puppy would leave her paw print on three objects, the clues.  Once the three clues were found, “Steve” would have to figure out the answer to a question such as “What does Blue want for her birthday?”

My son watched this show, without fail for about a year and a half.  Throughout that time, he formed attachments to certain episodes and characters. We had all the Blue’s Clues paraphernalia: stuffed toys, books, and stickers.  He would say the names of the characters and phrases from the show.  It was one of the most annoying children’s shows on television but he seemed to love it. He would smile and laugh at whatever was going on.

There were many times, during this same period, that he would wake in the middle of the night, screaming until he was out of breath.  Literally, screaming and crying uncontrollably.  There were times we were panicking ourselves over these “night terrors”.   We consulted the pediatrician.  No help.  She just said they were “night terrors.”  At times, we were so scared that we pondered going to the emergency room. We gave him bottles, changed his diaper, rocked him, held him and tried everything to calm him down so he would go to sleep.  Often, the only thing that could calm him down was an episode of Blue’s Clues.

Looking back on it now, it may have been because the show’s formula.  Without fail, it followed a strict routine of singing: the rules song, looking for clues song, sitting in the thinking chair song, solving the “mystery” song and the goodbye song (my personal favorite). The predictability and routine of the show probably soothed him back to sleep when nothing else could.

During the show, Steve would ask questions to the camera and wait for the child in the audience to give an answer.  I would always expect my son to respond.  Even with prompting and modeling by me, he never did.   He knew the answers.  He’d watched the episodes a hundred times.

I had a few scattered thoughts about his lack of response.  First, I figured he was distracted and not paying attention.  Often, though, he would be looking right at the TV while the questions were asked.  Then, I figured he knew the answer and that he was uninterested in sharing it out loud because he knew he was not talking to Steve but to a TV.  Having actually put that second thought down in writing, I realize how idiotic it sounds.  I really don’t think now, that my two year old had that kind of sophisticated thought process but, hey, this was my first and only kid and I did not think that hard about it.  Silly as it was, that was my thought at the time. Pre-diagnosis, of course.  Post diagnosis, I thought he could not do it.

At some point, my son became averse to Blue’s Clues.  I was quite relieved at this because it meant that I did not have to watch it 30 times a day.  He moved on to other shows, similar in the predictability of their format.  The odd piece of this is that he did not just tire of the show (like I had) but actively and vehemently avoided it like the plague.  For example, he would become anxious if it happened to pop up on TV.  He would bring me the remote to change the channel or simply start yelling for some other show, repeatedly.  He had to do this act quite a bit before I caught on that there was something seriously upsetting to him about continuing to watch this program.  He gave me a clue.  It had become forbidden territory bringing on terrified looks, screams, panic and meltdowns if it was not removed from his senses.

Once I understood this aversion, I still did not erase the episodes from our TiVo.  Instead, I would ask from time to time, if he wanted to watch it.  The answer was consistently, “No, no, no, no, no!” He was so determined that he would approach me and try to grab the remote control from my hand.  He made it clear.  Blue’s Clues was banned.

I would estimate that we went on about a year and a half Blue’s Clues hiatus.  Then, one day probably just before he was four years old, he asked to watch a particular episode.  In this episode, Blue goes through a car wash.  The episode was different.  The main character Steve had been replaced by his “younger brother” Joe.  Joe had changed up the show’s routine.  Blue was riding in the car giving clues out a window instead of inside her house.   The idea was to guess where she was going.  Same songs, different scenery.  Hmmm.  That my son wanted to watch only this episode was mysterious in its own way.  What kind of clue was that?  I still don’t know.

The episode was placed on his request list, off and on, for about eight months.  He would either be watching no TV or something else and ask for mommy to put on “Joe car” which was the only sanctioned episode for our household.  A very curious display.

The whole TV show is kind of ironic in ASD terms.  It depicts a communication impairment between the man and his dog.  The impairment does not mean, in this show, that the dog is intellectually impaired.  The way it is set up, the impairment seems to be in the human who is slow to understand the dog’s communication.  Often the dog is trying to help the human understand something like an approaching storm or where a lost blanket is located.  The dog cannot use words so it must communicate differently to get the human to understand it.  It must give the human clues to the message it is trying to convey.  Yeah, ironic.

Just at the beginning of the week, I found an old DVD because he’d started asking for another show about a cartoon octopus.  Yesterday, I started the DVD from the beginning  in the car and on came Blue’s Clues, the banned episodes.  I watched his reaction in the rear view mirror.

He smiled.  He watched without turning away.  Without any self-talk.  Watching and listening.  A few minutes into the show, Steve asked, “Would you like to play puppets?”  And during the usual pause, my son, smiled at the screen.  “Yes,” he replied softly.

I waited three and a half years for that one word response.  I had dreamed of a day that he would listen, comprehend and talk back to “Steve.”  Yesterday, it happened.  You have no idea the joy this brought to me.  I smiled and watched.

In your world, it might seem like the craziest thing you’ve ever heard.  To me, it was music.  It was beautiful, timely, perfect and something that I had dreamed of coming true.  Within 30 seconds he was back to playing on the iPad and talking to himself.  But that moment is etched in my mind. It was the best clue of all.  The clue of communication, delayed but not lost. I suddenly find myself wanting to watch more episodes of Blue’s Clues too…

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About solodialogue

I'm a lawyer and the mom of a 6 year old boy with autism. I work part time and spend the rest driving here and there and everywhere for my son's various therapies. Instead of trying cases, I now play Pac-man and watch SpongeBob. I wear old sweaters and jeans and always, always flat shoes to run after my son. Yeah, it's different but I wouldn't change it for anything. The love of my child is the most powerful, beautiful and rewarding aspect of my life.
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28 Responses to The Weird Surprises of Blue’s Clues and ASD.

  1. Kelly says:

    Been here. This is why I love your blog. This post could have been written by me, except it would have included f-bombs.

    I know when I first heard Ted reply to Blue Clues, about two months ago, it was such a remarkable moment. Most of our conversations are scripted, or he answers with things that are not true. Not because he is a “liar”, but rather because he cannot get the right words to come out. The simple act of replying appropriately to Steve was a little snowflake of hope. It also reinforced that my son does, in fact, have the thoughts and words in his head. It is the “simple” act of releasing them into the world that he has trouble with.

    • solodialogue says:

      Kelly, you are so funny. Blue’s Clues with f-bombs! I know about the right words not coming out. You can see the frustration on their little faces and it makes me feel so helpless. When they start to respond, even to Steve, it is a glimmer of things to come and it is a feeling of real joy!

  2. I’m almost crying with joy for you! What a wonderful, wonderful moment!

    The whole reason we started watching so much Dora is because of beautiful moments like that. The funny thing for Kaia is that it is not the English inquiries she responds to best — it’s the Spanish. I love listening to her try to imitate the Spanish words (this morning’s episode of Dora had her trying to say “dulce suenos” — sweet dreams).

    I hope we’ll be hearing more stories about your son’s growing communication skills… I know we will. I bet he’ll have a lot to say when he’s ready 😉

    • solodialogue says:

      Dora does have it’s own little formula and my little guy watched his share. He just bonded to the Blue’s Clues. I can just imagine Kaia saying “dulce suenos”. Too cute!

  3. Julie says:

    OMG – I thought I was the only crazy Mom who wondered why her child didn’t answer the TV like my nieces and nephews did! Dylan too is starting to respond to the TV set. He’s never had an outright aversion to any show but lord knows I have (Max and Ruby – where the hell is their parents? Why is Ruby such a #$@!?).

  4. Lizbeth says:

    I was wondering if he would catch on Steve was replaced…Alex never replied to the TV. I think he figured out the were not real/live/in the moment so he stopped watching although we did have a good run with Mr. Rogers. He avoids shows with emotion so we’re now stuck on How It’s Made.

    Ruby is a turd–my daughter loves her and ick is all I can say.

    • Julie says:

      OMG I’m dying, she is an absolutely Turd! There is a facebook page for people who hate Max & Ruby. Yes, my husband and I are a proud member 🙂

      Steve went on to do other things and there have been a few episodes where he pops back on from time to time. Contrary to the urban legend, he did not die of AIDS.

      I do have to admit, I love Yo Gabba Gabba. Thankfully so does my son.

    • solodialogue says:

      Don’t be surprised if Alex comes back to Blue’s Clues. My son gave it up for quite a while before he returned.

  5. Nancy G says:

    That’s great!! Further proof that TV isn’t all bad. : ) Blues Clues was a favorite here although it seems like so many years ago. We have not yet parted with a series of books featuring Steve. BTW is he still around? Last I heard there was some guy named Joe.

    • solodialogue says:

      True, TV can be good. There was a rumor at one time that Steve overdosed on heroin but that was not true. I hear he has a band though. That must be an interesting act. And yes, “Joe” replaced him in later episode which were not as good when they started straying from the formula, IMO.

  6. Flannery says:

    That’s so awesome!!! My son never answered the TV either. He also had favorite shows that would suddenly become off-limits, in a very hostile way. It was Imagination Movers, and it happened after we took him to see them live. It was too loud and a sensory overload, and he never watched them on TV again. A big FAIL for us. I’m so glad you got that special moment with your son, it means the world.

    • solodialogue says:

      Thanks! We took our son also to a live show. What were we thinking?! My son has shown some interest in Imagination Movers, only for the “warehouse mouse” so far. Really, again, don’t be surprised if he comes back to it someday. I’ve gotten my share of hostile reactions to TV shows, toys, music…. and then he comes back to it. Sometimes, I almost think it’s like they are testing their own limits with aversion and fascination.

  7. Broot says:

    🙂 Yay I’m glad you had that moment!!

    That said, I have to admit, I never answered the TV and my kids (not on the spectrum) never did either. I asked my son once why he didn’t and he told me “cuz he’s not really talking to me.” I dunno.

    And yet, like you, I can sing all the Blue’s Clues songs by heart, and I know which episode it is within seconds of it starting. We had them all. But when they changed to Blue’s Room (Where Blue talked) my kids lost interest. 🙂

    • solodialogue says:

      Thanks. The moment was very special to me. I am so with you on when they changed to Blue’s Room! That was terrible. The cute little puppy bark that was Blue became an annoying voice and totally twisted the entire concept of the show!! Sorry, I have no idea why I have become such a critic of a cancelled kids’ TV series… 😉

  8. Awwww. When I was a kid, my mom said I would pull my little rocking chair up in front of the TV every day when Mister Rogers came on. I’d sit and talk back to him and I do remember being SO sure he could see and hear me. It took me forever as a kid to comprehend what TV was and how people got on it and how we could see it. People tried to explain it but it was just way too much. To me, they were part of my world at that time.

    • solodialogue says:

      That is so beautiful. I bet there are some adorable pictures of you at the TV. This is such childhood innocence. You are a lucky girl to have grown up with that kind of understanding. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Brian just started answering TV shows this past year too and I absolutely love it- every time he does it I am blown away….ahhh, the simple things 🙂

  10. Tina says:

    I can remember watching “The Miracle Worker” and being transported when Annie Sullivan finally got through to Helen Keller with the word “water”. The ability to communicate is so vital to the well-being of our children, and it is beyond frustrating when we find they may not be able to have their needs met because they can’t ‘talk’ to us. I love this story!

    • solodialogue says:

      I remember that too, now that you bring it up. That was the ultimate communication! You are so right. Communication is vital and it’s why autism is so hard. It can be invisible and misunderstood, isolating a child from those who don’t understand him. That’s why these little nuggets of focused response are gold! Thanks Tina!

  11. eof737 says:

    Noting crazy about you or your heartfelt wishes… That Yes was golden and that he smiled too as he said it … touched my heart. This is what we all want as moms that simple yes, or no to our questions. I remember Blues Clues well. 🙂
    Elizabeth

  12. Jen says:

    Just found your blog tonight by recommendation…so happy I did! I’ve been reading for hours now, tearing up with joy after this one in particular. My 4.5 year old son just watched An old Blues Clues DVD a few hours ago. He would never answer the questions either but tonight he couldn’t shut up! The similarities are amazing. My son is also obsessed with elevators. He knows all the different brands from watching them on you tube with his iPad. Thanks for sharing!

    • solodialogue says:

      Wow, thanks for coming by. Sounds like our boys need a playdate… They’d probably just play side by side but I imagine they probably like a lot of the same things. Blue’s Clues is an amazing hot topic for autism moms. I don’t know what it is about that show but it constantly pops up as a favorite. And elevators… don’t get me started!! Hope to see you back again, Jen!

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