Rollo, the TV Trollo

When he was little, Rollo would lie in his cozy spot in my office, looking at pictures, and listening to kid’s songs on my cellphone.

Sometimes we’d sit on the swinging bench in the front yard—he was so little he could fit snugly on my legs and would lie there looking at the trees and sky (Em’s legs are a bit on the short side). He’d stay like that for a while, then grow restless.

So we’d flip on the song app, and he’d calm down again and be quite happy. For long enough to finish a cup of coffee, at least.

He was also partial to lying on the floor and watching the ceiling fan. He preferred it moving but was happy to just gaze at it, even if it didn’t move. Sometimes I’d hang things on the fan blades and put it onto slow mode to entertain him further. We know now that this is another autistic trait, but at the time, we thought it was wildly cute.

I’m not sure what age it was that he discovered TV. I suppose around eleven months or so.

Well, more like YouTube on Em’s computer. Rollo had a play pit in the middle of the lounge floor, and Em noticed that he was gazing intently at the stuff she was watching.

Horrified, she started googling what was considered kid-friendly programs to watch. A variety of shows popped up. Although, of course, everybody claims to keep their kid’s screen time down to the bare minimum.

She tried Coco Melon first. It left Rollo stone cold.

Then she tried Pepper Pig. But that sassy little piglet didn’t do it for Rollo either. After Pepper, a selection of cartoon characters marched across her computer screen, but Rollo remained unmoved.

Hey Duggee, a British kids’ cartoon show, appeared in the sidebar one day.

Em first watched an episode with a squirrel named Roly.

Finding it adorable, she said to her wee son, “Hey Rollo, let’s watch Roly.”

It was as though a new world opened up before his eyes. He sat up, riveted. The clean lines and bright colours totally captivated him.

To her added delight, Em discovered all the inspiring little songs about doing stuff on this award-winning show. While it’s a kid’s show, it’s a bit wicked and also appeals to adults. Plus, we love how inclusive it is.

But, of course, you never get to see the whole show on YouTube, and we could not pick it up in South Africa. So they were relegated to bits and pieces and never actually saw an entire episode.

Despite this, it quickly became Rollo’s most favourite thing to watch.

Rollo loves Hey Duggee

Oupa Tjoppies, aka Chris, rectified the above problem by ordering a set of Hey Duggee DVD’s on Amazon, only to find the drive in Em’s computer didn’t like them. So, they now only get played on the Play Station periodically when the internet is off.

The YouTube snippets still take the cake.

While Em also adored Hey Duggee and the wacky squirrel gang, she was going slightly nuts watching the same stuff over and over again. So she started looking for something else and discovered Bluey, an Australian show. Rollo wasn’t impressed initially, but it grew on him, and he soon began alternating programs.

I’m not sure how exactly Elmo came about, but he also got added to the mix. Not Sesame Street, but rather Elmo’s World. We don’t know whether Rollo adores the gangly bright red furry creature or Mr. Noodle (who looks like one of Em’s friends—sorry, Sean) more. He’s pretty fond of Smartie, too and can be seen sniggering and chortling while cavorting around our lounge.

If you imagine a couch potato kid watching all this TV, then please wipe that image from your mind. He barely sits still for a minute. Bouncing off the couch, onto the floor, over to the TV, off to feel the patchwork quit on the arm of the chair (a temporary fix—Folly is destructive) and back up onto the couch again. All this is punctuated by sips of water, flinging his cup to the floor, then retrieving it and having another sip. We’re not sure if the water slurping is a stim or if he’s just thirsty.

Folly has eaten large chunks of our leather furniture, so I made a plan for the moment. Rollo likes the feel of the different patches.

This is when he’s watching in our lounge. Usually, the electricity is off (load-shedding), and the invaluable little battery bank is powering up the television (there’s another one that keeps the internet going, too). In such cases, he grabs the remote, leaps onto the couch and mostly patiently waits for somebody to sort things out for him. He’s also quick to moan when the adverts come on.

Rollo is often supervised by the dogs.

When he’s in Em’s flat, he now has the run of the whole place and does exactly that.

He runs around. Then picks up his toys (only to feel—not to play with). He turns the pages of one of his books and then dangles precariously off the end of the bed that acts as a couch (and yes, he falls sometimes). He’s really only still when drinking his bottle or is very tired.

Maybe I should clarify the bit above where I say Rollo now has the run of the entire flat. Charl (Rollo’s dad) was careless about what he left where. Em was constantly neurotic that Rollo would come across a sharp piece of iron, screw, knife, or something equally dangerous and put it into his mouth, as he tends to do. He also often lost his temper and broke things, so sharp shards sometimes lurked unseen in hard-to-reach places. Additionally, he made didgeridoos. Admittedly, lovely ones – if anybody wants one, they should contact him when he gets out of rehab. He constantly tramped sharp bamboo and Agave splinters into their flat without a care in the world. They’d stick into the carpets, bedding etc., waiting to jab into soft little feet.

So Rollo’s space was restricted to a smallish area that Em scoured several times daily.

Folly likes to sit near Rollo where ever possible.

I confess I worried greatly about how much time our little lad spends in front of the screen until one of the therapists said that the TV probably calms his busy brain down. I’d never thought of it like that before and took a lot of comfort from her words.

People can be very judgmental at any age. One of Leila’s friends said rather prissily that she would never let her kid watch TV at Rollo’s age. I replied snippily, “You’d better hope you don’t have a neurodiverse kid then.” We are very grateful to have something that keeps Rollo calm and occupied, that he can learn from, and that makes him happy. Hearing him giggle at something funny Mr. Noodle’s just done is music to my ears.

Yes, he does get pissy when you turn the computer or TV off when it’s time to do something else. But he’s easily jollied. His attention can be diverted with only a small amount of effort.

Since we’ve been going to OT and speech therapy, we’re learning that choice is a big thing. Typical kids can automatically ask for something, whereas Rollo, being non-verbal, is reliant on us. One tends to forget about this, and we are now actively trying to give him as much choice as possible.

I’ve also discovered from various autism experts that the way to a neurodiverse kid’s heart and brain is to use something they already like to develop other skills.

So, I made more little laminated cards with Duggee, Bluey and Elmo. I added their names this time because we were advised that often kids with ASD pick up the alphabet and numbers quickly.

Now, when he watches TV in our lounge, we spread those three cards out in front of him, and he picks which one he wants to watch.

Whatever card he picks up, that’s the show that goes onto the screen.

I know, to people with neurotypical kids, this probably seems lame. But we find it wildly exciting that he wilfully picks up a card, sometimes even discards said card after a few moments of thought, and purposefully chooses another.

Then he stands back expectantly and waits for his show to come on.

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