Six Degrees of Pittsburgh
I had promised myself I would take a break from using "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" as metaphor for everything Pittsburgh, but but yet another Fred Rogers connection came up recently when an intern at my office, Bridget, brought to my attention special “sensory friendly” screenings of films at AMC theaters for children with autism spectrum disorders. At these screenings the lights are turned on, the volume is lowered, and moviegoers are able to make noise and get out of their seats. I found this program really interesting, even more so in light of my increasing awareness of the special connection that Fred Rogers and the Fred Rogers Company have to the autistic community.
I first became aware of this connection at an early screening of our film My Tale of Two Cities at the Sonoma Valley Film festival. After the film had been shown, there was a Q&A session with the audience and the first hand to go up with a question was that a young girl who seemed very shy. The moderator called on her, but she seemed momentarily frozen, and so the moderator delicately asked her to come up front and asked her question directly to her. It seemed like almost five minutes passed before she actually whispered her question, and when she did, it was not into the microphone, but into the ear of the moderator. The moderator turned to me and repeated her question: “She wants to know if you think this movie could really change things?” I was so moved by this I was a bit frozen myself. I didn’t know what to say, but eventually ended up blurting out, “If you could come up here and ask that question, I think anything is possible,” I think I would have remembered this moment as it was, but what really cemented it in my mind is that after the event the girl’s parents came up to me. “I can’t believe our daughter did that,” her mother said to me. “She never does things like that…she’s autistic”.
Fred Rogers thought that everyone was special just by being them, but over the past few years, I've become increasingly aware of the special relationship his program has with some from the autistic community in particular. In addition to his message to kids of appreciating diversity, "Mister Roger’s Neighborhood’s low key production and lack of hyper stimulation made it more accessible to autistic children than other children’s TV programming. In particular, his habit of starting and ending shows the exact same way and repeating activities like putting on his shoes has made the show resonate for some autistic children, many of whom benefit from routine. One of my students at Pitt even wrote a paper on this, after consulting with the Fred Rogers Company which, with the help of a grant from FISA, a foundation based in SWPA, is getting ready to release special DVDs of selected episodes and bonus materials designed specifically to benefit children with autism spectrum disorders.
On the Fred Rogers Company website it says “There are many file folders here at The Fred Rogers Company filled with letters from parents of children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. We hear time and again that watching and reflecting on episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood helps children in numerous ways, such as decreasing anxiety and excitability, improving listening and speaking skills, increasing attention to learning tasks, and building capacity for imaginative play.” You can read more and sign up for their wonderful newsletter at www.fci.org
Fred Rogers devoted his life to the idea that television could change things, and Pittsburgh, his company, and many of its neighbors continue to build on his legacy to take this idea to heart for a community that holds on to hope for a brighter future.
Another great site for those working with children in Pittsburgh to make this the best place in the world to grow up is: http://pittsburghiskidsburgh.com
And I recently had the privilege to be part of a wonderful conversation about Pittsburgh last week with Fred's wife Joanne Rogers as part of a special 4802 for WQED before the premiere of My Tale of Two Cities with Paul O' Neill, Franco Harris and Dok Harris, Michael Bartley, and Grant Oliphant, each of whom had a great stories about Fred. Afterall, while the program remains timeless, Pittsburgh still remains the real life "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Click here to watch.