A new DVD released this week teaches autistic children how to recognize emotions like happiness, anger and sadness through the exploits of vehicles including a train, a ferry, and a cable car.
“ËœThe Transporters’ is the brainchild of Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University, who became interested in the subject while teaching autistic children in the 1980s.
He soon began to question how he could do more for kids suffering from the condition. “Why should social interaction be so difficult for a child who has very good skills in other areas like memory or an attention to detail?” he asked.
During his studies, Baron-Cohen suggested that autism – which is much less likely to afflict girls – might be an extreme version of the typical male brain, as men tend to understand the world via patterns and structure, whereas women are more inclined to understand emotions and sympathize with others.
He now believes autism could be a condition where people perceive systems and patterns while remaining almost oblivious to other people and their feelings.
Baron-Cohen and his team soon began to use eight track-based vehicles in their DVD to help autistic children understand emotions. The British government financed the project, which shows the vehicles with human faces grafted onto them, making focusing on human features unavoidable.
Baron-Cohen said an autism-friendly format was necessary in order for them to teach autistic children something they found difficult.
It seems that children with autism are particularly drawn to predictable vehicles that move on tracks like trains and trams. Parents of autistic children have often noted their children’s attachment to Thomas the Tank Engine, a popular kid’s show.
“Autistic children are often puzzled by faces, so this video helps focus on them in a way that makes it very appealing and soothing,” said Uta Frith, an emeritus professor of cognitive development at University College London.
The DVD is a way for autistic children to learn social skills the way other children might learn math or a foreign language, Frith said.
Baron-Cohen and colleagues conducted a small study of 20 autistic children between ages 4 and 7, and found that autistic children who watched the video for at least 15 minutes a day for one month had caught up with normal children in their ability to identify emotions.
But while autistic children might be able to recognize emotions better after watching the DVD, that would not necessarily change their behavior at home or on the playground, they warned.
“This is not some kind of miracle cure,” he said. “It just shows that if you have the opportunity to practice these social skills, you can improve.”
Experts agree that while it certainly helps, the video is not a replacement for working and playing with real people.
Catherine Lord, director of the Autism and Communication Disorders Center at the University of Michigan, said parents couldn’t just park your child in front of this for hours and go to the other room.
“This will hopefully start interactions or play sequences that kids can then play with real people,” she added.
Baron-Cohen and colleagues distributed 40,000 free copies to British families with an autistic child or to doctors working with them once the DVD was released in 2007.
Baron-Cohen’s study found that some parents reported that their children watched the DVD hundreds of times within a month.
The DVD is available online at http://www.thetransporters.com and sells for $57.50. It includes interactive quizzes and a booklet for parents and teachers. Half of the profits go to autism charities and research, and the other half goes to Changing Media Development, the company Baron-Cohen launched with colleagues.
Simon Baron-Cohen also happens to be the cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen, the famous actor and comedian behind the popular Ali G Show.
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