New DVD helps children with autism to recognise emotions|
LONDON, UK: A DVD depicting the antics of animated vehicles with human faces that can help children with autism was unveiled on January 9 as part of a British government-backed initiative.
People with autism have difficulties with empathy and they struggle to identify and understand feelings and to look others in the eye.
A pilot trial of the video on 25 four to seven-year-olds known to have difficulties in relating to others helped them to recognise emotions after just four weeks.
Called The Transporters, the DVD series cost the government £460,000, was narrated by Stephen Fry and features real human faces "grafted" on to colourful cable cars, trucks and trains.
Each in the series of 15 five-minute episodes focuses on a different human emotion, such as anger, fear or pride, and follows an earlier DVD produced by the Autism Research Centre (ARC) at Cambridge University.
One parent who took part in the clinical trials said of their son with autism: "We have noticed a change in his behaviour. It's a bit like someone's flicked a switch in his head."
Speaking at the Royal Society in London, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the ARC, said that work with that of his colleague, Dr Ofer Golan, showed that parents had noticed a change in their children after just one month using the DVD, with around 50 per cent improvement in the ability to recognise and explain emotions.
Professor Baron-Cohen said: "The aim is that, through hours of repetitive TV watching, children with autism, instead of turning away from faces as they usually do because they are so unpredictable, thus missing out on crucial experience in learning about emotional expressions, will tune into faces without even realising they are doing so."
He added that children with autism, which affects around 1 per cent of all youngsters according to one study in The Lancet last year, warmed to the theme of transport in the DVD.
"Children with autism love watching films about vehicles because, according to one theory, they are strong 'systemisers'," he said. "The core of autism is an ability to deal effortlessly with systems because they do not change and they are the same every time. Autism involves a disabling difficulty in dealing with the social world because it is always changing unpredictably and is different every time."
However, children with autism - which is more common among boys - are fascinated by trains and cars, and Thomas the Tank Engine, perhaps because vehicles have very predictable motion, while people are far more unpredictable.
The DVD animation series capitalises on this fascination. Carole Scibor, 39, from Cambridge, whose five-year-old son, Tom, was involved in the research study, said it had helped him to feel more empathy.
"It didn't just help Tom but it has helped my seven-year-old daughter, Sophie, too," she said. "She understands more about what autism is. Tom really enjoyed it and even re-enacted scenes from the DVD afterwards. It was good to see him applying himself."
Denis Murphy, six, is one of those who has been taking part, and his family have already noticed changes in him. He was asked to look at them for 15 minutes every day over the course of four weeks. But the first time he saw them, he liked them so much, he watched all 15 five-minute episodes at once.
The DVDs were commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and are now being given to around 30,000 other families who have a child with autistic children
between the ages of two and eight. More tests are planned, and it is too early to say whether they will have long-term benefits.
Professor Baron-Cohen stressed that the DVD was not a "miracle cure" but said regular viewing could make a difference.
Speaking at the launch, the British Culture Minister, David Lammy, said: "Imagine what a confusing world it must be for a child who cannot understand the significance of a smile or a frown. This project aims to make a very real difference to children with autism in helping them to understand human emotions."
Stephen Fry added: "The Transporters is a fun yet educational animation series that I am pleased to have been a part of. It is an important and worthwhile creation to help children with autism understand emotions."
The series of 15 five-minute episodes features the adventures of eight lovable toys with human faces, each focusing on a different human emotion.
Behind the fun and colourful world of The Transporters lies some of the latest Cambridge research. The Autism Research Centre has been working with Culture Online and Catalyst Pictures to find new ways to help children with autism learn about emotions. Children with autism tend to avoid looking at human faces and find it hard to understand why facial features move in the way that they do. This inability to read emotions on the human face impairs their ability to communicate with other people.
Professor Baron-Cohen said: "Just as a child with dyslexia can be helped significantly by using tailored educational methods to ease them into reading words, so a child with autism can be helped significantly by using tailored educational methods to ease them into reading faces."
Research by Dr Golan and Professor Baron-Cohen found that, following a four-week period of watching the DVD for 15 minutes a day, children with high-functioning autism caught up with typically developing children of the same age in their performance on emotion recognition tasks. One parent who took part in the clinical trials said of their son with autism: "We have noticed a change in his behaviour, speech and range of emotional expressions since he started watching The Transporters. It's a bit like someone's flicked a switch in his head."
Children with autism are often fascinated by rotating wheels, spinning tops, rotating fans, and mechanical, lawful motion. They prefer predictable patterns. For this reason, all the toy vehicles featured in the The Transporters run on tracks or on lines. The 15 key emotions portrayed in The Transporters aimed at 2- to 8-year-olds are: happy, sad, angry, afraid, excited, disgusted, surprised, tired, unfriendly, kind, sorry, proud, jealous, joking and ashamed. Each episode has an associated interactive quiz to help the child learn about the featured emotion.
Because of the encouraging results, the DVD will now be made available free from the National Autistic Society. The society's president, Jane Asher, said: "This is such a wonderful initiative and is going to make a huge difference to the lives of some very vulnerable children."
Copies of the DVD can also be requested via the official website at www.transporters.tv.
(Sources: The Daily Telegraph, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, January 10, 2007)