ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Children with autism encounter many difficulties. Some have trouble recognizing emotions. So British scientists have come up with a DVD to help these children interpret facial expressions and the emotions behind them. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports.
(Soundbite of music)
JON HAMILTON: The DVD features nine cartoon vehicles including a tractor, a ferry and a cable car. They're called, "The Transporters."
(Soundbite of "The Transporters")
Unidentified Man: Sally was in the cable car wash. Sally was happy. She loved being clean and shiny.
HAMILTON: "The Transporters" were developed by a team that includes Simon Baron-Cohen, an internationally-known autism researcher.
Dr. SIMON BARON-COHEN (Developmental Psychopathology, University of Cambridge; Director, Autism Research Center, Cambridge, University): Children with autism love to watch mechanical objects, like vehicles, probably because they're so predictable, especially vehicles that move down tracks like trains or trams or cable cars.
HAMILTON: Baron-Cohen directs the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University in the U.K. He says one reason kids with autism have trouble recognizing emotions is that they tend to avoid looking at human faces.
Dr. BARON-COHEN: So we wanted to design a children's television series where we had human actors, human faces grafted onto these mechanical vehicles.
HAMILTON: So children would have to look at human expressions.
Dr. BARON-COHEN: Even if the child is focusing on the wheels going around on the vehicles or on the levers and mechanical aspects of the vehicles, even without realizing it, they're going to be looking at the faces.
HAMILTON: Each five-minute episode deals with a single emotion - happy, sad, afraid, angry. Between episodes, kids who want to can take a quiz.
(Soundbite of "The Transporters")
Unidentified Man: How is William feeling? Is he sad or happy?
HAMILTON: Get the wrong answer and you see a train car full of stinky fish. "The Transporters" began as a project funded by the British government. The goal was to use what's known scientifically about the disorder. And Baron-Cohen says when the team got done, they used scientific tests to see how well the approach worked.
Dr. BARON-COHEN: After just one month watching the DVD for 15 minutes a day, the children with autism who had gotten that experience improved significantly in their ability to recognize emotions.
HAMILTON: The original British version was so successful that Baron-Cohen decided to do a North American version, complete with American voices. It was released this month. Karen Ewert, a physician in Maine, heard about the original version more than a year ago. She began using it with her son who was six then. He didn't have to be coaxed.
Dr. KAREN EWERT (Obstetrics and Gynecology, Maine): From day one, he has loved moving vehicles of any sort, but trains were his first love. He loved the Thomas train videos.
HAMILTON: And he loves Sally the cable car, Barney the tractor and Oliver the funicular railway. She says the DVD made a huge difference.
Dr. EWERT: He started watching people's faces just a few days after he started watching the program, and he would try to figure out how people were feeling. And the more episodes that he watched, the more different emotions he learned, the more he was just aware of other people having emotions and his own emotions.
HAMILTON: Ewert says her son got so good at the DVD quizzes, he started deliberately giving wrong answers just to see the stinky fish. And one day, she noticed her son looking at himself in the mirror. He told her he was practicing his faces. But Simon Baron-Cohen says recognizing facial expressions isn't the same thing as fully understanding emotions or feeling empathy for another person.
Dr. BARON-COHEN: Emotion recognition is really only one part of the empathy. You know, it's obviously a prerequisite. If you can't recognize what someone is feeling, how are you going to respond emotionally to what they're feeling?
HAMILTON: And Baron-Cohen says "The Transporters" can help a child with autism take an important first step in that direction. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.