Twin App Review: Two Kids, Two Different Ways to Play

My 10-year-old children may be fraternal twins, but they are extremely different from each other. My son, Quentin, has autism spectrum disorder and ADHD, and he plays very differently from my daughter, Fiona, who has no such diagnoses. As a result, their play styles are completely distinct. In general, Quentin prefers to play with toys by himself. Fiona, on the other hand, prefers to play socially, making characters interact.

Besides their actual birth in a hospital, neither one of my children has had to experience one before (knock wood) — as either a patient or a visitor. However, they are very familiar with their pediatrician’s office, and what doctors do. With this as their knowledge base, I decided to let Quentin and Fiona review Toca Life: Hospital, an open-ended app that allows kids to explore a hospital and the things that go on inside it. Because different apps appeal to different kids, I wanted to explore their differences of opinion.

I was excited to co-play along with them for this little experiment so I could explain some of the unfamiliar things that happen in a hospital. I am grateful that they get to play through the hospital space now, while they are healthy, so if we ever do wind up in a hospital, they’ll be more familiar with the kinds of things that are there.


Fiona’s review

First, I observed my daughter play the app. Fiona immediately loved it, and began making up stories to go with the characters. “This is really realistic,” she commented (as if she was already a hospital expert). “I think it’s a very creative game because there’s a lot of different levels, like… see? There’s an elevator!” I watched her go to different levels, and she explained the different places in the hospital as she got to them. She was very comfortable making up scenarios as she encountered them. Fiona liked exploring the features of the game, such as props and tools, and she almost always incorporated them into the character’s story. She could play like that for hours.

She was very comfortable making up scenarios as she encountered them.

Quentin’s review

Unlike Fiona, Quentin is not conversational. He does not think out loud his thoughts or tell me what he thinks. (Ever.) Which means that I had to base his review totally on observing him play. Quentin’s gameplay was completely different from his sister’s. He liked to touch everything and test everything out. For most of this play session, he played with one character, giving the character things to hold or eat. He was curious to try everything. At one point, he actually ended up pulling the fire alarm and then escaping in the elevator. Quentin liked to play by himself, explore everything once, and then leave. He played with an intensity, using two hands to control things and moving at a fast pace.

He is curious to try everything.

Different play styles, same level of enjoyment

My twins have always been different, but they do both really like playing with Toca Life: Hospital. It just so happens that their play styles are nothing alike. My daughter loves coming up with the story lines that explain what happens in the hospital. My son is more of an adventurer, looking to try things out without any plot or consequences. I love that Toca Life: Hospital, like all apps in the Toca Life series, allows for both styles of play.

I always learn a lot about my children when I observe or co-play with them. In this case, I learned that their digital play behaviors very much mirror their analog play behaviors. Toca Life: Hospital gives them the chance bring their play styles to an unfamiliar location, making it possible to experience a hospital before they’ll need one. I also learned that they don’t really want me to talk or guide them. They both enjoyed playing in their own styles, by themselves, without explanations from me. Do you know how your kids play with games? Take a seat next to them sometime and observe. I bet you’ll learn a lot about who they are.

Melissa Morgenlander, Ph.D., is a children’s media curriculum designer and researcher based in Brooklyn, NY. She has a blog about her experiences with autism and technology and media called The iQ Journals. You can learn more about Melissa from her website, or follow her on twitter @covertcoviewer.


Let’s Put an End to Screen-Time Shaming

Recently, another mom I know was telling me about how her son had done something he was not supposed to do. As a consequence, she took away his evening screen time. That’s her usual punishment, she informed me — taking away his screen time. Her children get half an hour of screen time in the mornings and half an hour every night.

“Evening screen time?” I thought to myself. “An hour a day?” It seemed like this woman and I were living in different universes. My children have no such designated periods for digital playing and viewing. In my home, screen time is all the time.

As I write this, I can already feel you judging me. Screen-time shaming is not always spoken out loud, but I often feel silent disapproval from other parents when I disclose the amount of screen time I give my children. I am proposing that we put an end to screen-shaming. Let’s consider each situation before we judge.

In Lisa Guernsey’s book, Screen Time: How Electronic Media — From Baby Videos to Educational Software — Affects Your Young Child, she states that we need to consider the three C’s when thinking about screen time for kids: content, context and the individual child. While most media coverage concerns itself with content (educational television and apps), and recent conversation has turned toward context (namely, the importance of co-viewing, or joint media engagement), less is said about individual differences of children. That last C is just as important as the first two — let’s not forget about the child.

Other than [some] basic ground rules, I pretty much let my children decide when or when not to have their iPad or TV on.

In reality, I do limit my children with their screens — somewhat. I have some basic rules that keep things in check: No digital devices or TVs in bedrooms; iPads get charged in the living room every night; no screens during homework (unless it is required). Other than these basic ground rules, I pretty much let my children decide when or when not to have their iPad or TV on. Screens are not going away in this world, and I want to give my children practice at learning how to regulate it on their own now, because they’ll have to do it eventually.

My “excuse” for our approach to screen time

My excuse (or the excuse I used to give, but have stopped because I don’t want to feel screen-time shame anymore) is that I have a child with autism. Truly, his autism is the primary reason why we purchased an iPad in the first place, years ago. We were going to use it with a voice-generating app that could help him to communicate. Once my son began speaking on his own, however, we ditched the idea of using it exclusively for communicating and it became more of a toy. At this point, he really does need it, but not for the reason we first intended.

For my son, his iPad is a ritualistic necessity.

And of course, once we had an iPad for my son, my daughter immediately started fighting for it. (If you are a parent of more than one child, I sense your knowing smile.) So, we bought a second iPad, just for her. My 10-year-old twins are very different from each other. While my son has autism and ADHD, my daughter has no diagnosis at all. While they both love YouTube, my daughter will also play a variety of games, take selfies and or make stop-motion animations. However, she is happy to step away from the screen more easily to practice her drawing skills or write a story. She doesn’t need the screen the way her brother does.

For my son, his iPad is a ritualistic necessity. He grabs it the second he wakes up, and the second he comes home from school. He has interests that go in very different directions than his sister. He will use Google Maps “street view” to tour parts of our neighborhood looking at familiar street signs and looking inside stores, as Google sometimes allows. He uses YouTube to find videos on a wide variety of things: corporate logos, TV commercials, children’s rhyming songs, TV news shows, Toy Story 2, and videos about elevators. He likes to listen to lullabies I played for him as a baby, or look at pictures from our shared photo stream.

Many parents have loose screen-time policies

I have been interviewing a lot of parents who have children with autism spectrum disorders for a book that I’m writing. I’m learning that I’m not the only one with a loose screen-time policy. It turns out, most parents who have a child on the spectrum take a similar view as I do, and have very few screen-time limits for their children. Their reasons vary: Some parents of autistic children say that their child’s ability to stay calm and focused with an iPad is amazing. Some parents say that their children learn about things in the real world by interacting with YouTube. Others say that particular games have been really beneficial to desensitizing them to highly sensory activities in the real world, such as Toca Boca’s Hair Salon apps.

All children are different, but some children genuinely do need more time with a digital device. Those with autism might function better with a little more screen time than their neuro-typical peers. So, the next time you see a child in a public place who is glued to a tablet or a smartphone, don’t be so quick to assume screen time is such a horrible thing. Take a moment to increase your understanding of individual differences — this is what real inclusion is all about.

Melissa Morgenlander, Ph.D., is a children’s media curriculum designer and researcher based in Brooklyn, NY. She has a blog about her experiences with autism and technology and media called The iQ Journals. You can learn more about Melissa from her website, or follow her on twitter @covertcoviewer.

What You Don’t Know About My Kid’s "Excessive" Screen Time

There are many reasons why a parent might choose not to have screen-time limits for their child — some of them you might not have even considered! Next time you see a child glued to their iPad in a public place, you might want consider these possible reasons before you judge:

  • It’s not for him, it’s for you. Some children, particularly those with ADHD and/or autism, have trouble with self-regulation tasks, such as waiting for food in a restaurant. Sure, a parent could try to engage that child in conversation, but that’s not always possible, and often a tablet or smartphone could do a much better job at keeping the child (somewhat) still and (somewhat) quiet. An app as simple as the camera for taking selfies can do the trick to keep a child both calm and safe.
  • It’s her voice. For some disabilities, such as autism or cerebral palsy, speaking might be difficult. But many nonverbal people actually have the cognitive ability to understand spoken language without the ability to express themselves. The widespread use of touchscreens has been instrumental in bringing communication apps, which are sometimes called AAC apps (for Augmentative and Alternative Communication), to the general public. Using a smartphone or a tablet to speak means that the device needs to go everywhere with you. That child you see constantly using an iPad might just be having a conversation with someone.
  • He understands written language better than spoken language. Auditory processing problems affect many autistic people and others with sensory processing disorders. Closed captioning, originally created for the deaf community, serves as a huge benefit for those with autism. Many video streaming services, including YouTube, offer closed captioning with their videos, opening up the world of learning for some children.
  • The best inclusion happens online. For older kids and teenagers with autism, socializing face-to-face can be difficult. While autistic teens might still seek friendships or romantic relationships like their typically developing peers, eye contact can be excruciatingly difficult. One of the best things to come out of texting and social media platforms is that it provides a level playing field. All you need is the ability to type, and you can connect with others by sharing pictures, funny videos or your deepest thoughts. Even chatting in a video game like Minecraft or adding a comment to a thread on YouTube can make you feel connected. The social world is no longer scary or difficult behind a screen. For a person with socialization issues, our digital world is a place to thrive.

Melissa Morgenlander, Ph.D., is a children’s media curriculum designer and researcher based in Brooklyn, NY. She has a blog about her experiences with autism and technology and media called The iQ Journals. You can learn more about Melissa from her website, or follow her on twitter @covertcoviewer.

Sesame Street Hits the Mark with Autistic Character. Now We Just Need More

When my son was first diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), I knew next to nothing about it. “So, he’s going to be like ‘Rain Man’?” I asked my husband. At that time, Dustin Hoffman’s performance in the movie Rain Man was my only point of reference for autism. I had visions of my child growing up to become a math savant who insisted on watching Jeopardy every day in a mental institution, just as it was portrayed in the film.

My husband had a different cultural reference. “Do you remember the little boy on St. Elsewhere?” I did not. He showed me a few episodes that he had on DVD that featured the character of Tommy. This character was one of the doctors’ children — a quiet child who played by himself and was prone to tantrums that came out of the blue. That little boy did not seem like Rain Man at all.

We did our research. We read thick books about autism. We spoke to teachers and therapists. We learned that scientists don’t quite understand what causes the developmental disorder, but current thinking is that it is a combination of both genetic and environmental factors. Autistic traits can vary; not all autistic kids share the same characteristics. Most, however, have difficulties with communication and socialization, and they have repetitive, intense interests. But for all the research we did, the popular culture references still gave us the best understanding of what autism looks like.

The cases of ASD have increased in recent years. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts the number at 1 in 68 children in the United States who are diagnosed with some form of an autism spectrum disorder. Which means that almost everybody knows at least one person diagnosed with ASD. So where are these characters represented in popular culture? They are few and far between. For kids, there are even fewer opportunities to see a character with autism; until recently it has only been represented in adult-related media.

Better representation isn’t just for kids with autism — it’s for everyone

As it turns out, our little boy, now 9 years old, has become a person entirely different from the characters of Rain Man or Tommy from St. Elsewhere. He is an exceptionally good reader, but knows nothing about mathematics. He can speak, but he is not at all conversational. Still, he’s a loud, boisterous boy with a ton of energy, who loves to splash in pools, make snow angels, and play endlessly on his iPad. In fact, when I try to describe my son to others, the best pop culture reference I can come up with is Curious George: He is a good little monkey, but sometimes a little too curious. His preferred communication is a combination of one-word phrases and gestures mixed with squeals of joy. But Curious George is a monkey, and not a boy.

My son needs representation of autistic children in screen media not just for him to feel more included in the world, but for others to be more accepting of who he is. His twin sister, who is not autistic, is often embarrassed by his quirky behaviors. She has a difficult time explaining her brother to her friends. More autistic characters in pop culture would not just help my son, but it would help my daughter navigate this world. If her friends were more familiar with developmental disorders, they would know how to accept his funny noises and behaviors.

Enter Sesame Street’s Julia


© 2017 Sesame Workshop. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Zach Hyman

This is why I was overjoyed to see Sesame Street introduce Julia, an autistic muppet, last month. In the new episodes and short segments, Julia is seen playing with Sesame Street’s most popular muppets, Elmo and Abby Cadabby. (This alone is big! Elmo is a big Influencer in the toddler world.) Julia is introduced as a child who might not respond to a greeting or a question. She does not like loud noises (like sirens) and she often flaps her hands — these are both traits that some autistic people have. But she does like to run, jump and play, even if it is with her own rules.

Julia is not exactly like my son, but she does share his diagnosis. It is so hard to represent autism in popular culture, because the “spectrum” is so huge and varied. The writers at Sesame Street understand this challenge, and consulted with a number of different autism organizations to develop their character. I love the fact that the character they chose is a girl, for example, because there are virtually no examples of women with autism in popular culture.


Forget the books, the yearly Autism Awareness Day blue ribbons and puzzle pieces. In my opinion, none of that is as powerful as seeing autistic characters in TV, movies and video games to reduce the stigma of autism. We live in a neurodiverse world, and we need to see autism in all different shapes, colors, genders and behavior patterns. Luckily, there are already some autistic characters in popular culture. The more, the better! A child like my son benefits from seeing reflections of himself and knowing that he is represented in this world. What’s more, the world has a better understanding of my son, and will be more open to including him.

Melissa Morgenlander, Ph.D., is a children’s media curriculum designer and researcher based in Brooklyn, NY. She has a blog about her experiences with autism and technology and media called The iQ Journals. You can learn more about Melissa from her website, or follow her on twitter @covertcoviewer.

Cover photo © 2017 Sesame Workshop. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Zach Hyman

8 Autistic Characters in Pop Culture

To date, there are just a few representations of autism in children’s popular culture. There are more representations in popular culture for adults, but many of those characters never come out and say their diagnosis; it is just common knowledge that they have ASD. Here’s a short list of both.

Autistic characters in children’s pop culture

  • Julia, Sesame Street, PBS 2017. Julia is a great artist and can flap her arms like a butterfly. She does not always respond to people when they direct a question toward her, but she does like to sing and play. She does not like loud noises, like sirens. Elmo and Abby Cadabby are her new friends on Sesame Street.


  • Carl, Arthur, PBS 2010 and sporadically since then. Carl has Asperger Syndrome. He knows lots of facts about trains, and also loves jigsaw puzzles. He is a great artist and can draw pictures with great accuracy. He gets anxious around new situations and likes certain routines. He will only drink juice out of a box, and not from a bottle.

  • Billy the Blue Power Ranger, Power Rangers Movie, 2017. Billy is portrayed as an “autistic savant.” Autistic savants possess heightened cognitive abilities in math, memory, visual art and music. His expertise is technology. He always speaks his innermost thoughts out loud and goes off on conversational tangents.
  • Dennis, Dinosaur Train, PBS 2016. Dennis is very knowledgeable about all kinds of dinosaurs. He has trouble making friends.

A sampling of autistic characters in adults’ pop culture

  • Raymond “Ray” Babbitt, Rain Man, 1988. Ray is an adult living in a mental institution. He is an autistic savant who has extremely good recall of numbers and dates. He needs to adhere to a strict schedule of routines or else he will become upset.
  • Tommy Westphall, St. Elsewhere, NBC, 1982–1988. Tommy was a minor character throughout this drama; he’s the autistic son of Dr. Donald Westphall. He is quiet boy with an active imagination. The show’s final episode hinges on Tommy, who is seen holding a snow globe with a replica of the hospital inside. One possible interpretation is that the entire series was a product of Tommy’s own imagination.

  • Sheldon Cooper, Big Bang Theory, CBS, 2007–present. Sheldon Cooper is a theoretical physicist with extreme intellect and a lack of social skills. While the writers of this television show say that Sheldon has no diagnosis, fans have asserted that his behavior is consistent with the symptoms of Asperger Syndrome.

  • Max Braverman, Parenthood, NBC, 2010–2015. At the beginning of this series, Max is 9 years old. As the series unfolds, we learn that he has Asperger Syndrome. We watch as Max’s parents tell him about it for the first time. We also see Max struggle with friendships and socialization. His parents eventually create an entire school for Max and kids like him.

Melissa Morgenlander, Ph.D., is a children’s media curriculum designer and researcher based in Brooklyn, NY. She has a blog about her experiences with autism and technology and media called The iQ Journals. You can learn more about Melissa from her website, or follow her on twitter @covertcoviewer.

Cover photo via