Teaching Autistic Kids to Read Faces

The Stir Bloggers


For the average child, reading someone's facial expression comes pretty natural. When mom is angry and her face shows it, Johnny is pretty clear something is wrong. For a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, however, there's a good chance that facial cues will be missed or worse, misread as mysterious or even frightening.

Fortunately, "new tools are emerging to help them learn to decipher faces and thus better handle the social interactions they find difficult," reports the Los Angeles Times.

The "tools" in this case, are videos.

From the report: Nigel the bus loves to travel fast. When traffic slows him down, he gets angry -- and shows it.
Jennie the helpful tram normally wears a sunny smile, but her lip curls in disgust when she has to transport a load of smelly fish to the market.

Nigel and Jennie star alongside six other vehicles in "The Transporters," a series of short videos designed to help autistic children recognize the emotions in others' faces. Since its U.S. release in January, families, schools and clinics across the country have purchased the British-made series.

In a scientific study, "The Transporters," with actors' faces grafted onto appealing vehicles, helped autistic kids learn expressions. Autism therapy robots are also under development in the U.K.; the inventors hope they will help teach basic social skills.

The five-minute videos feature vehicles such as cable cars and trams, which run on tracks and so move only in a few predictable directions. Each vehicle sports the face of a real human actor. A character might look sad, as Jennie does when her wheel gets stuck, or excited, as Barney the tractor does on his birthday. Each of the 15 narrated episodes explores a different emotion through the story.

"The children can focus on the wheels going around . . . but at the same time, without even realizing it, they're getting exposed to faces, getting the opportunity to learn," says Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University in the UK and developer of "The Transporters."

Sounds like thinking out of the box to me. Wonderful news.

Do you know a child with autism?

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