Do you want to play with me?

Twenty some odd years ago, I had a student with autism (“Daniel”) who was developing academic skills, speaking in full sentences, but who had great difficulty playing with or connecting to other children at home or in class. Right around that time, I had attended an autism workshop in Brooklyn where they talked about how to use video as a tool for children to model social behaviors. They showed some simple videos of two children playing with a car, and then Barbie and Ken dolls. The idea behind video modeling was to have the child with autism watch the video and imitate the play actions and script.

I noticed that Daniel was able to memorize and repeat a variety of movie and TV scripts. I remember thinking, “I should try some version of a play script with Daniel. If he can memorize scripts from a TV, then it shouldn’t be too hard to make those scripts useful to him.”

So I enlisted my friend and co-worker Stacy, to help me make a video of a play sequence after work. We set up a simple play sequence using Winnie the Pooh and Tigger figurines with a tree house play set. I remember the script clearly because Daniel was able to imitate the play within the first session.  Amazingly, after just a few weeks of watching this video and memorizing it, he used the first line of the script outside on the playground.

“Do you want to play with me?”

Kids playing tag.

Video modeling has been an incredibly successful tool – not just for this student but hundreds after him. And not just for high functioning children with autism but for non-verbal children who appeared not to understand language and simple directions, children with apraxia, children with no ability request simple objects or meet basic needs.

I tried through the years to understand why this was such a successful strategy:

  • Was it because it was a video? And children love videos?
  • Was it because it eliminated background distractions?
  • Was it because it took away the processing of people’s facial expressions?
  • Was it because it was a very consistent presentation?
  • Was it because of the slow paced verbal models?
  • Was it the intonation in my voice?
  • Was it the songs that are peppered throughout the sequences?
  • Was it the common ground for beginning parallel play?
  • Was it recognizing similar actions and verbalizations of peers nearby?

What I came to realize, was that it was all of these things. Ultimately, though, it was FUN and brought the children JOY! Video modeling was the beginning of so much success for the children in processing the world of toys, social interactions, and how to use simple phrases to long sentences. It became a key to unlocking the child’s own creative thought and play, allowing them to start simply with some very basic toys and then move on to pretend-play with a variety of items.

Video modeling is highly effective for outcomes regarding play. It will always be a tool in my toolbox.

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