On Monday, PBS Kids will celebrate World Autism Month by bringing Dr. Temple Grandin, an Autistic woman who has spent much of her professional life helping bridge the gap between people with Autism and the neurotypical world, to a new episode of Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum. Grandin, who was the subject of a 2010 biopic starring Claire Danes, is also an advocate of more humane treatment of livestock, having become an expert in the field while working in the field of ranching after she graduated with a degree in animal science. In Monday's episode, her animated avatar will speak with Xavier Riddle and his friends about Autism, sensory issues, and how to accommodate people who are struggling with disabilities you can't see.
In the episode, Xavier and company meet a new child, who they try to befriend but accidentally scare off. As it turns out, the child has Autism, and the loud, chaotic sound of three enthusiastic new friends is more distressing than welcoming.
"The studio just came to me," Grandin told ComicBook. "I get people coming to me all the time, and I said, 'great. Do it!' It was really good that Xavier Riddle helped teach people about sensory issues in Autism -- that a sound that may not bother you, really bothers [people with Autism], and sets off a pain and fear response."
For Brad Meltzer, whose I Am... books inspired Xavier Riddle and who serves as a producer on the series, explained that once they knew they wanted to do an episode that helped their young audience learn about Autism, there was little question that Grandin would be a great candidate.
"It's vital that kids know that seeing things differently is beautiful and something to be celebrated -- and we knew that one of the best people to teach that was the amazing Temple Grandin," Meltzer explained. "When we started the show, we could never dream that she would actually be involved with her own episode. This one has been one of the best rewards."
While a lot of emphasis is put on the social aspects of Autism, there is significantly less discussion in the pop culture sphere of sensory issues, which shape the interactions many people with Autism have with neurotypical people daily.
"I think it's good to teach children that other children may have differences, and one of the things that helped prevent me from being bullied when I was in elementary school was that the teachers explained to my classmates that I had a disability, but it wasn't like crutches or a wheelchair where you could see it," Grandin said. "I think all kids on the spectrum have some degree of sensory issues but they vary in the severity....Some kids can't stand bright lights; I had no problems with that. My problem was sound sensitivity and touch sensitivity. Another kid might struggle with sound sensitivity and smell sensitivity. So they will vary in severity, they can also vary in the sense system that's affected by it."
According to Grandin, the Xavier Riddle conversation didn't douch on the possibility of having her appear in one of the Meltzer/Chris Eliopoulous picture books, but she would be open to the idea, saying that she supports anything they can do to educate children about the idea that there might be people in their classes who are impacted very differently by the world around them.
"Some kids might be afraid of dogs because you never know when they might bark -- and then other kids just love dogs," Grandin explained. "This is where it's real variable, but sensory problems are real, and there's secientific research to prove that. There's also scientific research to show very clearly that that loud noise, with an Austistic child, is setting off the fear circuits off in the brain, and that does not happen in a regular child."
Grandin also liked that the episode centered on trying ot make friends with the new kid, because a lot of children with Autism tend to be very driven to make friends based on a shared interest, as they can get very granular and fascinated with the things that they like.
"I thought it was really cute. I think is fun, and I think it's a good show, and it's going to help educate kids about sensory problems," Grandin said, noting that the sensory issues tie into the social challenges that tend to get more attention.0comments
"A lot of the social problems that some of these kids have go back to sensory problems, because a lot of social places are noisy," Grandin said.
Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum next episode, "I Am Temple Grandin," will air on Monday, April 5, alongside an "I Am James Naismith" episode, on PBS Kids.