Is Your Teen Tad Shy?

By Sandra Pearson

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Melva Radtke who, along with her husband and son, created 9th Planet. This unique video modeling program helps Tweens, Teens and Young Adults with Aspergers and high functioning Autism navigate the social world around them.

Following a science fiction storyline that will appeal to this age group, the videos feature Tad Shy an alien from the 9th Planet. Tad wants to interact with the “typicals” on this planet and Bob, a robot on his spaceship, acts as his coach, guiding him through social situations. The videos come with a workbook and are entertaining and humorous to encourage the repeat viewing that reinforces the social skills they teach.

9th Planet currently offers two skill sets. The first one deals with basic situations such as physical space, asking questions and eye contact. The second one tackles more complicated situations such as empathetic listening, recognizing sarcasm and phone skills. A new series offering job search skills is currently in production. This series will focus on the executive function skills needed for a job search and in the workplace.

And the best part, is that several members of the cast and crew have Autism Spectrum diagnoses.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

As with many innovative special needs programs and services, this one was created by a mom. Melva is an attorney and educator with a son on the Autism Spectrum. Tristan, AKA Tad Shy is now in his 20s but he wasn’t diagnosed until he was in Junior High. When he was younger, they knew something was “off” but no one could quite figure out what. He was diagnosed as ADHD and put on Ritalin but it was clearly not the answer.

Then an article appeared in Time Magazine about Autism and Aspergers Syndrome. The Radtkes felt like they were reading about their own son.

So while they had a name, Aspergers, and even an IEP, Tristan was aging out of programs designed for younger kids. Nothing in Tristan’s school programs fit him. They had nobody to help. So, out of frustration with their own situation, 9th Planet was born.

Success for Their Own Son

Melva and her husband had seen other videos and thought, hey, we can do that! So they did. Now Tristan has a diploma in film editing from a technical college and does the video editing for the Tad Shy series.

Melva says that being able to create something useful for their son and others is very rewarding. She says it’s been an amazing experience to watch the social impact the videos have had on a worldwide scale. And not only are other parents sharing success stories but the videos are also being used in school classrooms.

Tad and Bob give teachers, therapists and parents a point of reference when they talk about a skill that is less personal and less defensive. And ultimately more helpful.

Sibling Back Story ……. By Devon Radtke

I remember going to daycare every morning with my brothers. I remember that daycare well. I remember the pride I felt because I was in kindergarten and would leave my little brothers behind to go across the street to school when the bus came.

I also remember Tristan asking every. single. morning where we were going, even though we were always going to daycare. I asked my parents why he did that and they said Tristan just liked to know.

I remember Tristan liked to smell everything.

I remember Tristan liked to bounce. He has always walked on spring-loaded toes. My grandmothers each admonished him for it and bemoaned the poor future of his feet if he didn’t start walking flat.

I remember Tristan hanging on the fringe of Damien’s and my games. As the oldest, I was ringleader and Damien was my second. Tristan was just there. He went along with everything, but his interaction was minimal. He was a skinny blonde shadow.

Tristan was my weird little brother, but I don’t ever remember thinking anything was wrong with him.

When Tristan got to school, his world changed. Instead of a twin brother and older sister that he knew well, he had strangers for peers. He had teachers who saw something unidentifiable in him and labeled it as a problem. He had to go to the nurse’s office every day to take his Ritalin.

When we began taking the bus home after school instead of going to latchkey, I remember Tristan had to watch Arthur at 4:00pm every afternoon. When I was in sixth grade, a friend introduced to me Pokémon, which was also on at 4:00. I very clearly remember Tristan’s behavior when Damien and I tried switching the channel on him to watch this new show. That was the first time I realized how important routine was to my brother.

My parents took Tristan off Ritalin while he was still in elementary school. I had moved on to the larger pastures of junior high. Even in separate schools, though, I heard stories about the weird little kid who danced around the playground and “ate woodchips.” He wasn’t eating them, he was tossing them and catching them, and it was no surprise that juggling was second nature to him. That was the first time I became defensive of my little brother.

Tristan was thirteen years old when he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. His unidentifiable “problem” that had been misdiagnosed as ADD/ADHD, and that we, his siblings, had seen as quirkiness, was featured on the cover of Time Magazine. My parents read the article. It was as if someone had invisibly been following Tristan without anyone’s knowledge and had then written exclusively about him. A psychologist confirmed my parents’ hunch. Suddenly Tristan was on the autism spectrum.

With a diagnosis comes help, right?

Not for Tristan. At the time of his diagnosis, Asperger’s Syndrome was relatively unknown. Autism was not yet in the center of the public eye. The resources available for autism spectrum individuals were limited and focused on young children. When Tristan was a young child, he was considered quirky, then hyperactive. No one was trained then to recognize Asperger’s presentation. When his behavior was eventually recognized for what it was, it was essentially too late. He was too old.

Tristan has seen counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists, but as a young adult. He has never been in a formal program for ASD. He was thrown into and has remained in the “mainstream.” He had an IEP for his misdiagnosed ADD, and he went to speech therapy for a lisp. No one taught him how to cope with the instability and volatility of the world. No one taught him how to read facial expressions or interpret the inflections of voice and body language. No one taught him how to navigate a conversation, or even how to control his own voice. Tristan cannot see the things we take for granted to help us navigate an unruly reality.

Tristan is not alone.

Young adults like Tristan float in a kind of limbo. They are “typical” enough to not be eligible for the help they need. There is no physical identifier for ASD like there are for other more widely recognized developmental disorders. Because they look “typical,” they’re expected to be “typical.”

And that’s where 9th Planet comes in. Using movie-expert Tristan’s video editing skills, 9th Planet™ videos demonstrate how social skills work in typical situations – in the classroom, at work, or in social settings. They explain the social “rules” that Typicals follow, in a way that teenagers and young adults enjoy and appreciate. And Tristan can help others like him deal with the oft-confusing Typical world.

Tad and Bob Go “Guerilla”

“Guerilla filmmaking” is a term describing a style of filming quickly in real locations, without warning, usually without permission of the location owners.

A famous example of guerilla filming appears in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller, North by Northwest. The story called for the star, played by Cary Grant, to be involved in a murder inside the United Nations building in New York City. While the interior scenes were shot on a studio sound stage, Hitchcock felt he needed an establishing shot of Grant entering the real – and recognizable – UN building. However, the UN would not allow filming on their premises.

Hitchcock resorted to guerilla tactics to get the shot he wanted. With the camera hidden in a vehicle on the street, Cary Grant exited a cab and strode across the plaza into the iconic building.

(Director Sydney Pollack finally overcame the UN ban on filming in 2004, with The Interpreter.)
At 9th Planet, we’ve had permission to film at almost all of our locations, but we did resort to guerilla filming for two short cutaway shots.
The Personal Space video takes place in a public library. Library staff gave us permission to shoot, and we arranged to come in early, before the library opened, for the bulk of the filming. But one short scene, demonstrating public restroom etiquette, required shooting in the restroom – which was open to others in the building besides the library.

Since we were there early, we decided to shoot the restroom scene first, while there weren’t very many people around. Tristan and David, our two actors, went into the restroom first to make sure it was empty. We didn’t want to barge in with a camera if it was occupied. We waited for one gentleman to leave, then after making sure we had the room to ourselves, we brought in the camera for a couple quick takes.

We were nearly finished shooting when someone else came in. He stopped short, obviously taken aback to find people with a video camera filming in a restroom. We told him we’d be done in just a minute, and he went back out. After a few more short takes, we packed up the camera and left. On the way out we apologized to the guy for making him wait, then went back into the library for the rest of the shoot. We were polite, and he was understanding.

The second cutaway shot took place on a light rail commuter train. We bought tickets and boarded the train at the beginning of its run, before it filled up with too many people. We found three adjacent seats and Tristan and Melva took two of them, with the camera situated across the aisle.

At the first stop, Tristan got off the train, then turned around and immediately got back on. He walked down the aisle and took his seat, leaving a vacant seat between himself and the “other passenger.” At each of the next few stops he repeated his actions for a few more takes.

Since we weren’t recording any live audio for this scene (in the video, the scene plays under Bob’s voiceover) we were able to talk to each other about what we were doing, even while we were actually shooting. Other people in the car were watching us and talking among themselves. People like movies, and I think most of them enjoyed seeing what we were doing. I imagine they told their friends later about seeing a movie being made on the train.

After checking to make sure we had usable footage, we all got off and waited on the platform for a train going the opposite direction to take us back to our car.