'Soap opera therapy' for autism?|
YORK, UK: It's a soap addict's dream come true - being prescribed a course of EastEnders and Coronation Street by a doctor. But in research that has at last proved that soap operas have a use beyond the ability to boost national TV ratings, they have been successfully deployed by doctors to improve the life of a child with autism.
The research describes the case of a 14-year-old boy with the disorder who had to be referred to a child psychiatrist after severely disruptive behaviour in class. But after his "soap-opera" therapy, he is back at school and teachers have noted a significant improvement in classroom participation.
The research was outlined in the latest edition of the Psychiatric Bulletin, the journal of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, by Dr Lynda Breen, a specialist registrar at the Limetrees Child, Adolescent and Family Unit in York.
In her paper, entitled "Therapeutic Use of Soap Operas in Autistic-Spectrum Disorders," she said soaps might be better than current computerised techniques in triggering improvements and called for further research.
Autism is a life-long developmental disorder in which children have difficulty in daily social interaction with others. The disorder affects the ability of a child to make friends, as it limits the capacity to understand emotional expressions. It can leave the child isolated and unwilling to communicate, except with close family.
Dr Breen said there was an ongoing need to find new methods to help individuals with ASDs to learn to recognise emotions in others.
"Since they fail to grasp that others think differently, people with ASDs tend to encounter difficulties in relating to, and anticipating the actions of, others. Consequently, they may appear eccentric or self-centred, which further compounds their potential social isolation.
"The popularity and frequent broadcasting of soap operas might provide opportunities to develop therapeutic interventions without incurring a lot of time and expense."
The 14-year-old boy sought help to improve his "social skills" after repeatedly imitating other classmates at school.
He appeared "extremely anxious, with skin-picking and hand-flapping" and would only communicate with his mother in whispers.
There was no spontaneous speech or eye contact with his therapist.
In an attempt to foster engagement and knowing that he was a soap opera fan, Breen said, the therapist prescribed six sessions of watching recent episodes of EastEnders and Coronation Street and then describing the emotions of key characters.
"This boy could often become animated when discussing favourite characters. His eye contact and spontaneous speech improved significantly," said Dr Breen. "As a result, he became less isolated than before and his school noted "improvements in his class participation and a significant reduction in his imitative behaviours. Consequently, he was discharged from child mental health services with mutual agreement of all parties."
Dr Breen added that the value of using soap operas in therapy had to be balanced against the possible negative effects of excessive TV viewing. She advocated 90 minutes of "prescribed TV viewing" per week, which compared well with the national daily average of 154 minutes viewing among six to 12-year-olds.
The National Autistic Society Scotland agreed that the "structured" use of TV could help children with ASDs.
Spokesman Dr Robert Moffat said: "The inability to read emotions on the human face impairs their ability to communicate with other people and the structured use of television can help with this. Each child requires an individual approach and more research is required on effective interventions."
British soap operas have been central to much debate in recent years, attracting criticism and praise. In 1999, Coronation Street's Jack and Vera Duckworth were held up as a model married couple by the Bishop of Blackburn who had criticised soap operas for their high divorce rates.
Violence has also raised questions. Reports from the Broadcasting Standards Commission indicate that many viewers worry about the effect of storylines on younger viewers. The watchdog has previously criticised EastEnders and the now-defunct Brookside for violent scenes shown before the watershed.
But soap fans remain undeterred and the past 18 years have seen an increase in demand. In 1989, Coronation Street began airing three times a week, later expanding further to four in 1996.
Today, Coronation Street and Hollyoaks both produce five episodes a week, while EastEnders screens four.
(Source: The Scotsman, February 4, 2007)