Page last updated at 04:49 GMT, Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Cartoons to aid autistic children

By Jane Hughes
BBC News, health correspondent

Cartoon character
The cartoons have human faces

A project that has helped a small group of autistic children understand more about human emotions is being launched nationwide.

The project uses cartoons narrated by the actor Stephen Fry to help teach the youngsters about facial expressions.

People with autism often struggle to identify and understand feelings, and to look others in the eye.

Denis Murphy, six, is one of those who has been taking part, and his family have already noticed changes in him.

We've got to somehow find a way to get autistic children to overcome their fear of looking at people's faces
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen
Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University

He is typical of a child with autism because he is fascinated by trains and cars, but finds it much harder to relate to human emotions.

That may be because vehicles have very predictable motion, while people are far more unpredictable.

The DVD animation series, named The Transporters, capitalises on this fascination with vehicles by grafting real people's faces onto cartoons of vehicles.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen is director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University.

He said: "We've got to somehow find a way to get autistic children to overcome their fear of looking at people's faces so that they can start learning about how expressions arise.

"This is a way to ease them into reading faces."

Proved popular

Denis began watching the cartoons before Christmas.

Alex Murphy and her son Denis
The cartoons have proved a big hit with Denis

He was asked to look at them for 15 minutes every day over the course of four weeks.

But the first time he saw them, he liked them so much, he watched all 15 five minute episodes at once.

Each episode introduces the idea of new emotions, like happiness, anger, fear, kindness and pride.

It includes an interactive quiz, which helps the children learn about the emotions.

His mother, Alex Murphy, has been impressed with the results.

She said: "I've noticed that when we read stories, if a character's sad, he'll perk up and explain the reason.

"For the parent of a child who's not very interested in emotions or can't recognise them very well, it's nice to see them beginning to understand that side of life."

Flicking a switch

Other parents have described it as being as if a switch has been flicked in their child's head.

Professor Baron-Cohen said at the end of the four week period, there had been a 52% improvement in the ability of the children to recognise and explain emotions.

"They had caught up to the same level as a typically developing child on tests of emotional recognition," he said.

"They are preliminary but very exciting results - even with a very short intervention, children with autism can look at faces and start picking up the relevant information."

The DVDs were commissioned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, and are now being given to around 30,000 other families with autistic children between the ages of two and eight.

More tests are planned, and it's too early to say yet whether they will have long term benefits.

But researchers are hoping they'll be able to make a real difference to the lives of autistic children.

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Clips from the cartoons and a child's reaction

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