S.V. on Television

Autism versus ITV and BBC


The average Joe Doe's definition of watching too much television often includes 'lack of social skills', the 'couch potato' imagery and the violence having an effect on one's development.

Some of us learnt our first steps into language through television, whether it is programmes like 'Sesame Street' or from advertising jingles. Though some of my language may have came from the letters 'D' and 'H' and the number '2', it is equally likely that the 'Carling Black Label' advert may have held some sway.

This article not only covers my language development but also makes reference to programmes I enjoyed from 1985 - 2008. These include programmes I saw years after original transmission dates which I have discovered on DVD or on archive channels such as Gold, the late great Granada Plus, and reruns on terrestrial channels.

Daybreak (1982 - 1985)

In my formative years, I spent half a day at my local playgroup, with the rest of the day at my late Nana's house nearby. This was whilst my Mum and Dad were (briefly) part of that minority group during the Thatcher Years: the fully employed. Whilst at Nana's, it was there when I 'discovered' Rainbow, Mooncat and Mr and Mrs.

Though I didn't understand any of the plots with meaning, it was the overall pattern of each programme, the music and each ITV region's idents (even if the ATV one used to scare me each time). As children's programmes followed a set pattern, I found similar ground with quiz shows. As a consequence of this, I was able to understand quiz shows more than soap opera storylines.

For me, quiz shows followed a set pattern each time. The logic was simple: a few contestants, some questions and the winners getting a star prize (be it a crystal bowl or a foreign holiday).

Then came breakfast television, a Godsend for me as at 3 years old I was a poor sleeper. In the pre breakfast era, I used to watch the Open University programme, albeit without understanding. Then came Breakfast Time and TV-am. It seemed amazing for me to wake up at 0630 hours to watch pre-Roland Rat era TV-am. Again, I didn't understand what Angela Rippon or Robert Kee was saying at the time. I was hypotised by the then state of the art graphics and David Dundas' theme tune for its 'Daybreak' slot.

Saturday mornings used to be good. For my fix of popular music and 1980s Quantel Paintbox effects came 'Data Run'. With the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 gaining popularity among UK households, TV-am thought it would be a good idea to base a programme on a computer theme. As well as its bias to pop videos, I also enjoyed the Tron style graphics.

Though it was a good 15 years before being able to listen to recorded music with meaning, music also played an integral part into my development. I found joy in wondering why Boy George would repeat Karma Chameleon, or mishear the lyrics of 'The Safety Dance' by Men Without Hats. The decade I grew up in was also that of the music video, which were my favourite parts of any Saturday morning programme from 'Freeze Frame' to 'Going Live'.

Half watching some of the family programmes, I later graduated to echoing programme titles or asking my Mum and Dad 'What She Off?'. Nine times out of ten it was always Su Pollard or Ruth Madoc on 'Hi-De-Hi'. The programme also led me to one unusual episode at a medical.

Assessed by an audiologist at Guide Lane Clinic, Audenshaw, the clinician was testing my ears and played three notes on a glockenspiel. Immediately I replied 'Hello Campers', associating this with Gladys Pugh's announcements in the Perry and Croft written sitcom.

The year 1984 saw great change, almost a permanent revolution at Chez Vallantine. With my sister newly born, and my parents two of Thatcher's 3.5 million unemployed, I was months away from starting school full time. Gone were the days of returning from nursery school to 'Crown Court', 'Mr and Mrs' or 'A Country Practice'. By the end of 1984 came the first programme I was able to follow easily.

The Tank Engine Cometh (1985 - 1987)

In most sources, the adventures of 'Thomas the Tank Engine' is a popular programme among children on the autism spectrum. For me, this meant trains (well fictitious ones, but trains all the same). The Gestalt of trains and buses to me followed some sort of rhythm: they left stations, picked up passengers, left the stop and carried on till reaching their destination.

In this respect I was able to follow the stories very well. It was a semi familiar environment (though my trains didn't have faces and were diesel or electric) - it involved public transport, like a typical bus journey to the next town. Even before 1985 I would borrow and read countless picture books of trains - and I coloured my trains in the full BR Blue livery including yellow ends.

Instead, television graduated from being a media to echo the odd phrase to one I watched with meaning. Grimaces and smiles were something I learned from Gordon the Blue Engine and the Fat Controller. Quiz shows were something to try and answer questions to at home. News bulletins provided me with pictorial reference to that days events - and an interest in current affairs which hasn't left me to this day.

In most cases, I would (and still now) watch television for entertainment purposes (though without meaning till the late 1980s). Examples of such programming would include the slapstick humour in 'Chucklevision', 'The Pink Windmill' (featuring Rod Hull and Emu) and 'Your Mother Wouldn't Like It'.

Favourite Programmes (1985):

"For Those Of You At Home, Here's The Dreaded Stinger..." (1987 - 1990)

With my sister having grown up and followed her brother to the same primary school, I was in the midst of further transition. This time, it involved me moving to a school 15 miles away from home. The one thing which remained more or less intact were my viewing habits. In fact, television became a greater interest.

My interest in current affairs and quiz shows deepened, much to the chagrin of my teachers, who were encouraging me to enjoy more imaginative programming, or read fiction books. At the age of seven, my vocabulary and spelling was sophisticated, though unable to gain meaning. It was thanks to documentaries and other factual programming I was able to pick up these words.

I would pick up the odd word or phrase which would stand out from the programme. Sometimes it would be used randomly, without thinking of the person. An inappropriate conversation opener would include "Have you checked your tax disc?" - which would be most confidential. I could recall a similar experience I had in 1988. This was triggered by a radio advert/public information feature I heard on Red Rose Radio.

Though my language skills improved at my new school, I was less forthcoming in sharing what I watched last night with my friends. In fact I got on better with the teaching staff (probably being loco parentis and seeing them as like surrogate relatives). Playtime comprised of playing on the climbing frame (albeit badly with the movements of a Thunderbirds puppet and avoiding the highest point) and talking to the teachers or dinnerladies.

This was the case with 'freeform' non-organised outdoor play. With improved cooperation in organised play, I was encouraged to join my local Cub Scout group (21st June 1988). My interest in television started to wane as language skills were enhanced.

However, they didn't wane completely between 1987 - 1990. I was still partial to the odd quiz show and documentary. I still couldn't understand imaginative storylines as fluently as I could with the pattern of a programme (Broadcaster's Ident - Opening Titles - Part One - Adverts - Part Two - End Credits - Production Company's Copyright Ident). The graphics were also the most fascinating part of the programme. Even now, I would wait for the credits and the copyright ident.

By 1990, I became fascinated by the adverts themselves. From learning how to speak through them, the production itself and the agencies became the focus.

Favourite Programmes (1987 - 1990):

Other Hobbies Are Available (1990 - 1994)

Everything else got in the way of television such as homework. In fact I thought 1990 - 1993 was a wilderness period and a useful conduit for live football fixtures. Language skills improved by 1990, which saw me leave my previous school in West Didsbury for the mainstream environment. Hardly any language came from television programmes, so conversation sounded normal.

Two things took over: computer games and football. The latter started as more football fixtures were televised, a boost to my Dad who relinquished his Manchester United season ticket before the suits took over. The other interest came with another addition to the household, a Commodore 64. Computer games dominated the playground, be it Sonic The Hedgehog or Sensible Soccer. I later had my own computer, learning the joys of BASIC programming and tape alignment woes with a ZX Spectrum.

Instead, language was picked up from computer magazines, though not so computer games themselves. Both interests went on to be more enduring than television.

A Whole New Ball Game (1994 - 1999)

Growing disenchanted with the turgid offerings of the main four channels (give or take the odd episode of 'Cracker', soaps and regional programmes), August 1994 saw us discover the wonderful world of satellite television. My television interest returned to the fore; I became interested in channel frequencies of the Astra 1A - 1C satellites, watching MTV in its European form, and a trade programme about the Astra satellites in Betzdorf, Luxembourg.

With the latter subject, I was able to recall excerpts from the programme and on odd occasions, take great interest in recalling them. I watched the programme several times.

By 1995, a tiny proportion of my conversations included strings of dialogue from television programmes, with the exception of quotes from favourite programmes (for reasons of entertainment). Before college, I would also watch the same shopping features where CDs were advertised - just for the musical snippets.

College saw me move towards to working with computers; as a result, the internet became a greater interest. I would waste non-lesson time on college computers using Netscape Navigator to find obscure football grounds.

With half my favourite programmes having finished for good, TV offered little fascination for me other than being a source of entertainment. My favourite idents had dwindled, ITV went corporate and my interest turned towards the music channels and (thanks to my sister) an interest in Nickelodeon's channel idents.

However, I found myself watching the archive channels such as UK Gold to watch older programmes.

Shared experiences (1999 - 2002)

By 1990, my language had advanced to a point where I was able to listen to music and enjoy sitcoms with meaning, being able to get the gist of more subtle jokes. By 1995, I was able to enjoy sitcoms which had more subtle humour than slapstick. By 1996 - 97 it was satire. In 1999, I started getting the gist of irony and pathos.

Working full time between 1999 and 2001, comedy was a relief from a day's work, sometimes an escapist route. Personal experience for me became more understandable in 2001 as I lapped up the first series of 'Phoenix Nights' (having been to Working Mens' Clubs myself). As I started becoming more at ease with people, favourite television programmes became a conversation subject. This was helped with me doing a Media course at my local college where I was taught interviewing and copywriting skills among other skills.

Which is better? The Internet or the TV? (2003 - 2008)

"There's only one way to find out..."

Television ceased to be the main form of language acquisition for me in the last 5 years. In spite of this, the cathode ray tube (and increasingly plasma or LCD screen) remained a focal point. This time, it was the Internet.

Though television has enabled me to pick up oral language reception in its formative years, it continues to be used for the sole purpose of making my fellows laugh. This time, inflicting quotes from 'Only Fools And Horses' or 'I'm Alan Partridge' seem to have the desired effect.

My current job has had the dual purpose of enabling me to hone my writing abilities for web rather than print, and to build my own websites. This article and the rest of my website is concrete evidence.

Besides enabling me to 'recover' lost speech, the cathode ray tube has enabled me to speak to others browsing this site, post on forums and come into contact with friends several miles away. I wonder where I would be without this invention, let alone a PC or iMac.

Favourite Programmes (1990 - 2008)

Favourite Programmes (all years)

Stuart Vallantine,

Sunday 28 September 2008