British researchers have found a way to use the fascination many autistic children have with trucks and trains to teach them about human emotions.
Children with autism often have trouble telling a happy face from a sad one. That's partly because they tend to avoid looking at faces, says researcher Simon Baron-Cohen of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.
With funding from the British government, Baron-Cohen and his team developed a series of educational video vignettes for a DVD called The Transporters. The DVD uses colorful animated vehicles, each with the face of a highly expressive actor on it, to teach autistic children how to better read faces and emotions.
"Children with autism love to watch mechanical objects like vehicles," Baron-Cohen says, "probably because they're so predictable."
Each vehicle is a distinct character, including a cable car named Sally, a tractor named Barney and a tram named Charlie. Throughout each episode, their facial expressions change to match the emotions described by the narrator.
"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," Baron-Cohen says.
The DVD includes a series of five-minute episodes, each devoted to one emotion, such as happy, sad, angry or afraid. And there are quizzes of varying levels of difficulty so children can test their ability to read facial expressions.
A study found that children who watched the DVD for at least 15 minutes a day for a month became much more adept at recognizing facial expressions and the emotions behind them.
The original Transporters DVD was so successful in the U.K. that Baron-Cohen and his team released a new version this month using American voices. A quarter of the profits from American sales will go to autism charities.
Karen Ewert, a physician in Maine, began using the British version of the DVD with her autistic son when he was 6. She says he loved it.
"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," Ewert says. "The more episodes that he watched, the more different emotions he learned, the more he was aware of people's emotions and his own emotions."
Ewert says her son also liked taking the quizzes included on the DVD. The only problem, she says, is that her son would deliberately give wrong answers because he liked seeing the picture of smelly fish that appeared.
Baron-Cohen says recognizing facial expressions isn't the same as understanding an emotion or feeling empathy. But, he says, "If you can't recognize what someone is feeling, how are you going to respond emotionally to what they're feeling? So I guess it's the first step."
Watch An Excerpt From 'The Transporters'