Dan Kalinowski’s first inspiration for “Be Like Buddy” stemmed from a holiday party hosted by an advertising agency he worked for. The annual premise was to create a silly video, and in 2006, Kalinowski and his co-workers created Muppet-like versions of characters from “The Office,” a highly successful sitcom on NBC.
When his son, Alex, absorbed the video, a concept was born.
“He imitated it verbatim like he had not done with any other TV show or cartoon. I borrowed one of the puppets and used my laptop as my production studio. I did a toilet training video and a second video of listening to a teacher,” Kalinowski said.
Similar to many other parents searching for answers to combat their child’s autism diagnosis, Kalinowski tested remedies like chelation, horseback riding, gluten-free diets, and Applied Behavioral Analysis.
“My boy is no less autistic at age 11 than he was at age two. Has the underlying challenge been solved? I can’t say so,” he said.
Witnessing his son follow proper instructions for using the toilet and interacting with teachers, Kalinowski settled on his accidental discovery.
“Everyone thought there was an idea there. In the intervening six years, it sat there as an idea as my children grew, as my relationship got more complicated,” he said.
Ironically, Kalinowski was able to revisit the series due to continuing internal turbulence, including a divorce. Alex moved away from his home in Philadelphia, Pa., allowing Kalinowski to shift from a constant commitment to his son to cultivating a dormant idea.
Through the hardship, “extended family” from Kalinowski’s time in advertising reached out to support his groundbreaking education videos. His advocacy led to collaborations with artists like Clean Cuts, who donated the score, and cinematographer Gerardo Puglia, who was a crew member for the Academy Award-winning film “A Beautiful Mind.”
The burning question was characterizing the show’s main protagonist. The most recent blueprint of autism on a fictional show was the short-lived Syfy series “Alphas,” but the narrative of Gary Bell was far too complex for videos geared to young children.
“It’s a little complicated, from a storytelling point of view, to have your main character in the show not be all that verbal,” Kalinowski said. “He’s going to speak with limited, short phrases. He’s going to be excitable. He’s going to be a little off-kilter.”
The format would follow the off-kilter trail in children’s programming. The show aims to bring in different adult helpers, a contrast from the same set of characters on programs like “Blue’s Clues” or “Sesame Street.”
“What was missing is a lot of intrinsic value for watching it. I didn’t see the silliness that would keep a kid hooked from the beginning of a show to the end of a show,” Kalinowski said.
Then came the challenge of animating Buddy, a creative conundrum for a staff with little experience in puppetry. The all-volunteer staff meant a typical production schedule for a three-day shoot required several months to complete after principal photography, not to mention the necessary social media supplements that had to be enacted. Kalinowski wrote the scripts for the pilot episodes, based on personal experiences with Alex.
The show’s website documents the overwhelming trend of responses to the pilots. Parents gleefully expressed their gratitude, citing the videos as inspiration for autistic children to eschew narrow tastes in cuisine.
Kalinowski received a flood of suggestions for future episodes, including bedtime routine and transportation safety. He and his crew will even chase down harsh critiques of his content to seek a possible solution to improve his product.
“When you get a tool that works, when you get a breakthrough, it’s amazing,” he said. “There’s easily three dozen episodes that we could help be an immediate benefit to families.”
Now, the audience is doing the talking. Kalinowski relayed their feedback with a behavior specialist, using the advice to draft 10 additional episodes. Input can still be placed through a survey he created. Its goal is allowing parents and professionals to indicate where the project is and what future action is the best course to chart.
Strategy development is largely improvisational. Kalinowski hopes to gain funding resources through grants or sponsors to accelerate production time and boost the quality of future shows. For now, word-of-mouth embeds an optimistic mood in Kalinowski’s frame.
“We’re at that tripping point. If you’re going to talk about this as a marketer: 1 in 88 kids (who have autism) and that number is not going down,” he said.
Since the interview, a report published by the Centers for Disease Control in March lowered the ratio to one out of every 50 children, or two percent. The overall likelihood of getting an autism diagnosis remains low, but the estimated proportion is substantially higher than six years ago, when the official rate was one out of every 150 children.
The videos may not be distinguished from the myriad of treatments that lack scientific support, but Kalinowski believes expanding a project with ties to the fictional Dundler Mifflin Paper Company is the right thing to do.
“To have something that might help and hold it back, I think it would be morally criminal. We have to pursue that, especially when you see that smile, that look of confidence on his face. We can do that by making these videos fun to watch,” he said.