The Apple TV and Autism

January 3rd, 2009 | Posted in It's All Geek to Me!

Apple TV

I have blogged some in the past about our oldest daughter Elizabeth, who is autistic. Elizabeth will be 19 on Tuesday (gulp!), and like many autistic people she has certain routines, patterns and obsessive/compulsive demands that dictate her days. One of Elizabeth’s big things is watching videos. Her subject matter of choice will gradually fluctuate but there are several constants: the “Barney” children’s videos, the “Roseanne” TV show and currently the “Kidsongs”, “BabySongs” and “WeeSing” series of kid’s videos. She will watch these shows repeatedly all day long, often rewinding and watching a certain scene over and over.

Back in the days of VHS rule, she had at least a hundred video tapes of many of these shows that she would literally wear out watching. Frustratingly for us, one of the first things she’d do upon getting a new tape was to destroy the packaging and scrape off the tape’s label, so we could not tell them apart. Fortunately she could somehow. We could hold up a video that had no label or marking on it, one of a hundred that looked exactly alike we kept in several laundry baskets in the downstairs TV room, and she would tell us what the video was. She was never wrong. I still do not know how she could tell them apart… it’s an autistic thing.

The bad thing about VHS’s was that the tapes did wear out, but more importantly Elizabeth was prone to breaking the tapes themselves. People wonder why she’d do this if she liked them so much, but it’s sort of a “love them too much” kind of thing. She’d watch them and get overstimulated and eventually she’d pull out the tape and break it… she couldn’t help herself. The Lovely Anna and I became experts at VHS repair, being able to break down a video case, splice the broken tape and reassemble the tape in minutes. Later Elizabeth started breaking the cases themselves (snapping off the hinged plastic guard that protects the tape when not in a player) and we’d have to actually remove the tape spools from the original case and put it in a blank VHS case from a new tape… I cannot hazard a guess as to how many spools of unused, black video tape ended up in the garbage in the last 15 years. I know there must be stores in our area that are insisting to their suppliers that VHS is still a viable form of media based on how many blank tapes they sell not knowing it’s all attributed to us. Yes, there are still some videos Elizabeth likes to watch on VHS (and have never been available on DVD), so we still have a VCR… and we still repair the tapes.

When DVDs became the rage it was a blessing and a curse for us. The blessing was that they took up so little room compared to the bulky VHS tapes, and the picture never started to get wavy and eventually wear out. The curse was that we couldn’t splice a broken DVD, could we? Attempts to keep the DVDs away from Elizabeth were fruitless. If a DVD she wanted to get at was locked away in Fort Knox, my money would be on Elizabeth getting to it. For a while we would buy replacement DVDs for the ones she broke, but that quickly became a sizable financial problem.

Fortunately along came the recordable DVD, and eventually the computer based DVD backup/burning technology. “Original” DVDs are things Elizabeth gets for presents at birthdays, Christmas and on special occasions. Otherwise all her DVDs are carefully backed up on a hard drive, and copies burned for her as she breaks the ones she watches. Blank DVDs are cheap (although Memorex might want to send me some stock options in appreciation for the number of recordable DVDs we’ve bought from them), but when you record at least a dozen a day it’s time consuming and not exactly ideal. Elizabeth also insists on having the titles written in a specific color of Sharpie marker which she dictates, and the copy must be made by the person she chooses… usually Anna. It is not unusual for one of us to have to drop what we are doing and race to the computer to burn a copy of “Roseanne, Season 4 Disk 3 DVD Memorex PINK!” as Elizabeth will request. “Request” is too polite a word… it’s often more like a demanding shriek.

Apple TV in action

This Christmas we thought we’d try something to simplify our lives, and to make Elizabeth more self-sufficient. She received an Apple TV as a gift for her TV room. I briefly looked into the Apple TV when it first came out and declared it not ready for prime time. Since then Apple has updated the software and features of the device and it was looking more and more like it might work as a kind of permanent DVR for Elizabeth’s video collection… one that gave her instant access to all her videos, would organize them in a way she’d easily understand and could find what she wanted… and more importantly made it impossible for her to erase or destroy the videos themselves.

Did it work? Well, kind of.

Apple TV dimensionsFor those not familiar with the Apple TV, it’s a small device (8 inches square by 1 inch tall) that hooks up to your TV (must be an HD ready TV with component or HDMI inputs… the old composite or s-video connections are not options) and behaves like a DVR, only it does not play or record television programs from your cable, satellite or antennae, but plays content you either buy from the Apple iTunes Store or that you have imported into your computer via iTunes. It connects to your home wireless or wired network and must be paired up with a computer that has Apple’s iTunes software installed. It then acts as a “server” for the content you have in your iTunes library, allowing you to play that content on your TV. That includes music, TV shows, movies, podcasts, etc. The Apple TV does have it’s own hard drive and can locally store up to 160 GBs of content on it, but still must be paired up to a computer with iTunes to work. It’s like a big iPod that uses your TV as it’s display instead of it’s own small screen. Like an iPod, it syncs up to your computer and downloads content to it’s own hard drive which can play locally, but unlike an iPod it also can “stream” content not on its hard drive but still on your computer, so it has access to all the content on your synced iTunes library. Also unlike an iPod (except the iPod Touch and the iPhone), the Apple TV itself can browse and buy or rent content like TV shows or movies from the iTunes Store right from your TV, although the content has to end up in your iTunes library on your computer and can’t be stored just on the Apple TV. There are other features but that’s the basic idea.

Apple got a lot right with the Apple TV, but it’s still missing the boat on a number of things.

What it got right– The interface it uses, which will be very familiar to anyone who has used Apple’s “Front Row” to watch content in their Mac, is elegantly designed and pretty easy to navigate. You can easily find and watch anything in your iTunes library, and also very easily find new content via the internet and the iTunes Store, buy that content and be watching it in a few minutes. You do not have to wait for it to completely download but just enough for it to stay ahead of your viewing time. Setup is very easy and if you have a wifi network in your home you don’t need to use any wires other than the AC plug and the connection to your TV. A lot of content is in HD and surround sound. The built in WiFi is 802.11n capable making streaming from your computer fast and smooth if your network is “n” ready.

What needs work Having to be synced to a computer’s iTunes library is a real pain. It’s not enough to be set up for syncing, the computer needs to be on, awake and have iTunes running to stream content. Content synced and stored locally on the Apple TV will play without the computer being turned on, but like an iPod it has to be married to an iTunes library to work. You also must have an active internet connection for downloading content to work, and without a home wifi network it would be hard to hook it all together unless computer, TV and Apple TV were all in the same room next to one another. Also, your internet connection better be at least one of the faster DSL connections or better, or streaming a purchased movies or TV show, especially one in HD, will not keep up with your viewing and you will have to wait for it to catch up, interrupting your program. The ability to organize your shows is surprisingly limited as well. For example, the Apple TV insists on ordering the episodes of a TV show season in reverse order, with the most recent episodes at the top of the list. There is no way for you to choose to order them from episode one on down. Their remote is ridiculously oversimplified as well. It’s one thing to make things simple, it’s another to simplify them to the point that they are actually more difficult to use than if they had a few more buttons.

In our case with Elizabeth the Apple TV is not the perfect solution. I painstakingly reformatted all 9 seasons of “Roseanne” (over 200 episodes) into Apple TV format, added them to my laptop’s iTunes (the computer that serves as Elizabeth’s iTunes library) and indexed them by season, episode number, title, description and used the covers of the DVDs as the “artwork”. That took weeks (all done pre-Christmas). Unfortunately Elizabeth so far hasn’t watched many Roseanne episodes because they are in reverse order by episode on the Apple TV thanks to the inflexibility of the organization software. I am considering going back in and renumbering them in reverse order to remedy this, hoping Elizabeth isn’t thrown off by episode #1 being numbered #224 instead. The remote control is also so small and convoluted that she is having difficulty fast forwarding or rewinding and navigating the menus. One may say “well, she’s autistic after all”, but this is a kid that is capable of getting on her mom’s computer, opening a browser, typing in the URL for YouTube and eventually having multiple windows open playing multiple Barney/Kidsongs/WeeSing video clips at once. She is capable of figuring out how things work, but that remote is not intuitive.

Our Apple TV is here to stay, and we are hoping she eventually figures out how to use it to watch all her content. Since my laptop goes with me on trips, and her entire video library will never fit locally on the 160 GB Apple TV hard drive (and there is no option to hook up a secondary hard drive to the Apple TV… at least officially) we may have to get a small computer dedicated to Elizabeth’s iTunes library. Another silly shortcoming. The Apple TV would be a much more attractive product if it functioned as a stand alone content manager not needing to be synced to anything. Allowing the already present UBS port to connect to external hard drives would enable a user to download and store all the content they wanted and use it at their leisure without the need to be connected to any active computer. That would really make the Apple TV a winner.

Maybe a future upgrade will finally untether the Apple TV from it’s syncing chains and add the features it’s missing. Time will tell. In the meantime Elizabeth is slowly warming to it. She’s watching some videos on it and I’ll keep adding others I think she’ll want to have available. Maybe one day we’ll be DVD free. Time, and Elizabeth, will tell.


  1. Mugshotz says:

    I really think there needs to be something closer to an iPod for TV. I have not experienced Apple TV myself, but from what it sounds like, too much Wi-Fi -iTunes restriction garbage for my taste. I have a ton of videos and DVD’s I’d love to just sell and keep on hard drives, but until some hardward company or Apple comes up with a multi-format media player that you can transfer content from your computer to a player for a TV I’m sticking with recordable DVDs for now. As you said they are cheap and reliable. I’ve got my DVR for newer shows.

  2. Ryan says:

    If you’re planning on getting another computer for Elizabeth’s video library, why not cut out the middle man altogether? There is a Mac-only program called Drive-In that’s made for copying, storing, and cataloging your DVD collection. It rips a DVD with all the features and video quality intact, and you can use Front Row or the built-in Apple DVD player program to watch them. It works just like inserting a physical DVD, without the DVD.

    There are also some other nice features, like it will pull the case image, info about the movie and actors, etc., and display them for you on the screen. I found a good review of it here. I haven’t used it myself, but I plan on getting a Mac Mini (and a huge external hard drive) to use with my home theater and this program. (It should even work without a keyboard or mouse, just one of those Apple remotes that come with every Mac.)

    Of course, you can already rip DVDs to your hard drive with something like Handbrake, but Drive-In is officially licensed and preserves any copy protection that a DVD might have, meaning you won’t run into a DVD that you can’t copy because of DRM (that’s happened to me a few times when trying to copy borrowed or rented movies ‚Äö√Ñ√Æ naughty, I know). Plus, I like the nice interface and all the little bells and whistles. Might as well download the free trial and give it a whirl, right?

    And no, I swear I’m not being paid to endorse them or anything. I’m just a loyal reader of your blog, and I thought this might be something you’d find useful. Please let me know if you do!

    • Tom says:

      GREAT SUGGESTION! I looked into “Drive-In” and while it would be awesome in some respects… particularly in that it has all the DVD menus and such that Elizabeth likes to see (part of why the Roseanne episodes are not being watched by her on the Apple TV) we would run into the same kinds of problems we have with her using a computer for the files… she deletes them or moves them about all the time. If I could have a bulletproof browsing system like the Apple TV uses that is “locked in” and she cannot escape from and get into the rest of the system, this would be ideal. I will research further. Thanks!

  3. meredithd says:

    I know you didn’t want to get another computer but…it sounds like the Apple TV might pair nicely with a Mac Mini (which is rumored to be due for a revision). If you have an HDTV you might even be able to use that as a monitor, and just get a wireless keyboard for it.

    I see the same limitations. We just got a Wii, which has some neat internet features including web browsing, but no movies. The Playstation 3 allows you to download movies directly to it, but I’m sure you’re limited to the Sony store or something. I’m waiting for that all-in-one box that will allow me to download games, stream on-demand content wirelessly, act as a DVR, and web browser. It’s got to be coming soon (or so I’ve thought for the last 3 years or so). I can’t wait to cut the cord with the cable company.

  4. Kevingreenlee says:

    I have a soon to be six year old daughter with autism. Like Elizabeth, she is absolutely devoted to particular parts of preferred programs and, like Elizabeth, she has a tendency to love favorite DVDs to death. Sounds like the Apple TV might be a possible solution- thanks for sharing the information (and thanks for the rest of the blog and all your great art too!)


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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