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Teaching autistic kids to read facial expressions

April 13, 2009|Amber Dance

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.

For people with autism, facial expressions can be mysterious, even frightening. New tools are emerging to help them learn to decipher faces and thus better handle the social interactions they find difficult. 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.

And at UCLA, clinicians are working on computer-based facial-training programs, as well as the possibility that medication may improve attention to social cues.

Surveys of medical records show that one in 150 American children has an autism spectrum disorder, which includes autism and related conditions such as Asperger syndrome, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. These developmental disabilities cause social impairment and limited, repetitive behaviors. Children commonly enjoy predictable objects, and the vast array of unexpected expressions on a human face can be frustrating.

"The social world is confusing; it's unpredictable and scary," says Elizabeth Laugeson, director of a research collaboration between UCLA and the Help Group, a Los Angeles nonprofit that runs schools and outreach programs for children with special needs.

No one knows exactly why autistic people have trouble dealing with faces, says Dr. Judith Piggot, director of the UCLA Autism Evaluation Clinic. One theory is that autistic people have the capability to understand faces, but, for some reason, don't find the process to be rewarding -- and so they don't bother.

The lack of ability, or interest, in social cues makes it hard to form relationships. At Help Group schools, and at other similar programs, social skills are an essential part of the curriculum. Children practice identifying facial expressions on their teachers or in pictures. Computer programs that present different expressions are also available.

Autistic children enjoy mechanical things, probably because their motion is predictable, Laugeson says. For example, parents often report that their autistic kids adore "Thomas the Tank Engine."

"The Transporters" seeks to harness that interest.

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."

The British government funded the video's production. One-quarter of profits from sales goes to autism charities; another quarter will fund future research.

Baron-Cohen and colleagues tested "The Transporters" in a study soon to be published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. They gave 20 families with autistic children, ages 5 through 8, the video and instructions to watch at least 15 minutes a day. Eighteen other families did not use the video.

The scientists evaluated the children's facial expression skills at the start of the study, and again one month later. They found that the kids who had watched "The Transporters" were better at matching the appropriate facial expression to an emotional situation. Also, the children could identify expressions in pictures of strangers, applying their new understanding to unfamiliar faces.

That scientific evidence is important, Laugeson says, because most current therapies lack a solid scientific base.

The study focused on high-functioning children who could use language and had average IQs; Baron-Cohen is now evaluating the videos in low-functioning kids, who generally have difficulty with speech and self care.

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