Disney movies helped my son, who has a neurological disorder, to communicate with me

Disney movies helped my son, who has a neurological disorder, to communicate with me
Debbie Feit
  • My son was diagnosed with childhood apraxia of speech at age 2.
  • He had speech therapy four times a week to help him learn how to communicate.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that too much TV can negatively affect early brain development, especially at younger ages when learning to talk is so important. For my son, watching Disney movies was what got him to speak in the first place.

When Max was 2 and a half years old, he spoke fewer than 10 words when he should have had more than 100. In addition to a few nonverbal gestures, his main forms of communication were shrieking, hitting, and banging his head against the floor.

He was diagnosed with childhood apraxia of speech, a neurological disorder that affects motor planning. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association estimated that it occurs in one to two out of every 1,000 children. And it has, in fact, occurred in both of my two children.

Put simply, Max knew exactly what he wanted to say. But somewhere between his brain and his mouth, the message got lost. If you've ever had an email returned as "undeliverable," you have a good idea of what apraxia is like.

He had endless hours of speech therapy, but watching TV is what really helped

The treatment was intensive speech therapy. We went four days a week for half-hour sessions with two different speech therapists. They started small, working to elicit only vowel sounds. As Max mastered them, they added consonants and worked on one-syllable sounds. The goal wasn't perfect speech. It was any speech at all. "I want that" came out "I wa dat." And when it did, it was music to my ears.


Eventually, Max's speech started to blossom. He was finally capable of imitating what he heard. And he began initiating conversation — especially when he watched TV.

"Guys go boom," he told me as Cruella's lackeys took a tumble in "101 Dalmatians." "Bad guy," he said as the Huns made their appearance in "Mulan." Previously, Max would have sat quietly watching. Now, I got a running narrative.

TV offered Max an opportunity to talk about something that excited him. This was important because a child with apraxia has an easier time talking when it's a spontaneous utterance and not a planned response, as the pressure to perform makes it difficult to get the words out.

If you had asked Max who ate bananas, he might not have been able to say "monkey," even though he knew the answer. But if you started jumping around the room chanting, "Ooh, ooh, I'm a monkey," he might have joined in.

When I allowed Max to watch TV, I offered him an environment that made him comfortable and content. That's when the words came most easily.


We practiced talking with Disney characters' names

As with most children — with or without special needs — Max often behaved better for other people. His speech therapist was able to run down a list of 10 words and quickly get 10 responses from him. When I tried the same, the response I usually got was "Stop, mama," complete with his hand in my face.

So one day, as I helped Max get dressed, I thought I'd try something different to get him to practice new words.

"Tell me 'Pocahontas,'" I said. He smiled and offered up his best "Poca-mumble."

"Tell me 'Aladdin.'" "A-laddin."

"Tell me 'Mulan.'" "Moo-lan."


Clear as a bell.

I'm not sure which was more satisfying — that he said these words so clearly or that for once my request wasn't met with his hand in my face.

While I understand the AAP's concern about too much screen time, especially when it replaces physical activity outdoors, for Max, TV was a catalyst for conversation. And for that, I'm grateful.