In Transporters, a new animated DVD for children with autism, Jenny the trolley furrows her brow with worry when she's stuck on the track. That frown turns to a smile when her friends—all vehicles with smiling human faces—come to help her.
Simple stuff, you might think, but not so simple for children with autism, who often have difficulty recognizing emotional expressions. This DVD represents a new direction for autism therapy: a simple, inexpensive teaching tool that parents can use to supplement more intensive behavioral therapies that are the first line of treatment.
"It's a way of smuggling social skills teaching in the back door," says Simon Baron-Cohen, an autism researcher who developed the DVD and who directs the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University. Children with autism tend to like things that are predictable, and machines going down a track are that. Baron-Cohen figured that children with autism would be more comfortable watching the cartoon vehicles on a DVD than attending a social skills training group.
Children with autism who watched the DVD 15 minutes a day for one month improved their ability to connect facial expressions with emotions, compared with a second group of children who didn't watch the video. In fact, the DVD watchers caught up with a third group of children in the same age range of 5 to 8 who don't have autism. The results will be published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. "We're not claiming any sort of miracle cure," says Baron-Cohen. "But it does show that if there's any sort of opportunity to practice, you can improve."
One significant caveat: The children in the test group were high functioning, and the groups were relatively small, with just 18 children in each. Baron-Cohen is now testing the DVD on low-functioning children with autism. "We normally think about social skills needing to be learned in real social situations," says Baron-Cohen. "What we're doing is somewhat counterintuitive, where social skills are learned in an artificial situation."