Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood has kind of felt like my neighborhood for the last eight years. Daniel Tiger was the first TV character my oldest son ever loved. My second son discovered him just about the time when my oldest was outgrowing him, so Daniel got to stick around. My last child is just about old enough to start loving Daniel now, too. The entire time I’ve been a mom, my days have been punctuated by the sounds of Daniel helpfully singing about taking turns, handling big feelings, and navigating the tough situations of preschool life.
I even cried when Daniel’s little sister, Baby Margaret, was born.
Shut up. It was beautiful.
Since Daniel’s neighborhood is a product of the Fred Rogers Company, it feels very familiar to me.
I love seeing characters I remember from my childhood reimagined as the grown-ups in a neighborhood designed to validate kids’ emotions and experiences. There are all kinds of families represented, and I’ve never wondered if I was going to agree with the messages my kids get from the show.
When I recently heard that Daniel Tiger’s neighborhood was going to introduce an autistic character, I was hopeful-but-not-convinced that my son would see a character that feels relatable to him.
My son Walker is five, and he is autistic.
We don’t use functioning labels. They are not helpful to anyone and they are not an accurate way to describe an autistic person’s experience. But I think I should tell you a little bit about Walker so you’ll know why I was worried that he wouldn’t see himself reflected in Max, the new guy in the neighborhood.
Many times autistic characters on TV shows are portrayed as being very verbally competent and intently focused on their areas of interest, or even as savants, displaying a genius-level amount of knowledge about their favorite topics. Other times, an autistic character might be portrayed as completely non-speaking and very sensitive to things like bright lights and sound.
Neither of those common portrayals really resonates with Walker’s experience.
Walker’s uses language appropriately much of the time, and he talks all day long. But he does have a speech delay. He doesn’t have conversations exactly like you’d expect a five-year-old child to have and he definitely doesn’t spit out long, impressive strings of facts and trivia about the things he loves.
He doesn’t tend to react to things like lights, sound, crowds or any of the other intense sensory experiences that can be uncomfortable for some autistic people. He is comfortable in most situations, as long as he is allowed to do things his way.
People tend to say things like, “Oh, he just has mild autism, right?” when they see that he’s communicating clearly or handling a sensory overload without trouble. On the other hand, when Walker won’t answer a question or needs some space to do things his own way, people will express their condolences to me about his autism, or assume raising him is difficult for me.
Assumptions about “how autistic” he is don’t help him.
Walker is fully autistic (because autism is an is-or-isn’t kind of thing), but that means a million different things depending on the individual. For my boy, it means that he needs and deserves time, space and understanding to be comfortable and successful.
With all of this information in my mind, last Friday afternoon, I scooped Walker up and took him to my room. We snuggled into the fluffy pillows and shared a blanket, and I turned on the episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood where Max makes his debut. (Fun fact: An actually autistic actor voices the character which was an absolute must for me if we were going to watch it!)
Max’s first day in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood was amazing.
When the teacher explained that Max is autistic, I showed my excitement. I said, “Oh look! Max is autistic!” and Walker’s face lit up. He said, “Just like me, Mommy!”
When Max lined his favorite buses up in rainbow order, Walker grinned from ear to hear. He said, “The colors of the rainbow! Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple!” Max’s affinity for putting things in rainbow order is just like my boy—and he noticed that right away.
In another part of the episode, Max had a tough time with a noisy, bright situation. Even though Walker doesn’t usually mind those kinds of things, he was able to clearly see that Max needed a break. When his aunt took him outside, he said, “Now Max is happy!”
He laid next to me and watched the whole episode with a little smile on his face. When it was over, we talked about autism like we often do. He repeated his favorite phrase, “Autistic is awesome, and different is not less!”
Later that evening, he chose to spend his iPad time re-watching the episodes. I could hear him giggling along with the characters as they found creative, accommodating ways to play with Max.
It means so much to him to have someone like him to watch on TV, and as his mom, I am so grateful Daniel Tiger can give that to him.
But it also means so much to me that all the neurotypical kids watching Daniel Tiger are getting an early introduction to autistic kids. Max isn’t the only choice, either! Just on PBS, kids can watch AJ on Hero Elementary, Julia on Sesame Street, Dennis on Dinosaur Train, and even the Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum episode about Temple Grandin. By the time a kid starts school, they might have a handful of exposures to kids like my boy during their TV time. That matters.
It’s so important to families like mine for this kind of representation to continue and expand. Walker is going to be in elementary school soon, and outside of the protective cushion of preschool. He will be walking halls with kids from age 5 to potentially 11 or 12. The more of these kids that understand how to spot and accommodate autism, the kinder his school experience will be.
And more importantly, it’s only fair. Autistic people exist from birth to death. Just like it’s important for media to be inclusive about race, gender, body type, religious garments, and ways of life, it’s important for media to include neurodivergent people when they’re creating characters and casting.
We love Daniel Tiger’s new friend, Max, and we hope he will make appearances in many more episodes.
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