The British government, working with autism researchers at Cambridge University's Autism Research Centre, have produced a new video program called "The Transporters" designed to help young children with autism learn how to recognize emotions, and to practice generalizing what they learn. The government plans to make 30,000 DVDs of the video program available to children with autism in the U.K. via the National Autistic Society.
While it does not appear that this video is available outside of Britain, the materials associated with the project provide some good background information for parents in other countries about the use of video technology to teach about emotions. You can read the government announcement issued last week by clicking here, and you can see a video preview of the program at a special Transporters website, with explanations about the thinking and research behind the video. I would recommend this page from the website which covers information for "parents, teachers and carers" -- issues such as using facial features to convey emotions, and generalizing lessons learned in the video to other situations in daily life. The materials say:
Bringing the understanding of emotions from the series to the real world is a principal educational aim of the series. There are several things you can do to help with this. Look for similar emotional expressions on TV, in films and newspapers, as well as in real life when watching other people. Talk about what happened, who the characters were, how they felt and how they showed their feelings.
Choose pictures from magazines that convey different emotions. Try to work out what the people could be thinking or saying, looking at the similarities to emotions in the series. Associate the emotions presented in the series with the child's immediate environment. Discuss examples from their lives. Ask the child to mention such examples from his or her experience. Ask the child to create similar stories to those in the series with his or her own toys.
Since children with autism spectrum disorders often show little interest in other people's faces and emotions, the video program puts human faces onto very familiar transportation vehicles. The vehicles move in a predicable fashion, on the road, over a railroad track; the researchers say the children are responding to them. "What we're trying to do is to bring them back into the social world. By putting emotions onto the vehicles, they learn to understand the social world," says Simon Baron-Cohen, a prominent British autism researcher who is director of the Autism Research Centre.
In addition to the typical range of emotions -- happy, sad, angry, afraid, surprised -- the Transporters stories cover more complex feelings such as jealous and joking. Baron-Cohen says that the video stories are tailored not only to show these emotions, but also to create a context for what gives rise to the various feelings in stories that last four or five minutes. Each episode, designed to appeal to children between the ages of 2 and 8, covers one or more emotions. There's a quiz for children to take after each episode, asking viewers to identify the emotions on the faces like those above.
British actor Stephen Fry is the narrator, so the program sounds a bit like Jeeves the butler speaking to the kids. If anyone knows of a similar project in North America that is worth watching, please feel encouraged to leave a comment here or e-mail me.