Read my lips

Animated trains and trams are helping autistic children to understand facial expressions, reports Stephen Manning

Charlie the fun-loving tram, Dan the mischievous cable car and Oliver the grumpy funicular railway are helping autistic children to learn about emotion and facial expressions. The Transporters is an animated DVD resource following the Thomas the Tank Engine model, featuring 15 five-minute animations narrated by Stephen Fry, the actor and writer.

The stories are about what eight toy vehicles with human faces and personalities get up to when Jamie, their owner, goes off to school each morning.

Children with autism have difficulty understanding facial expressions because they prefer to avoid looking at people's faces. But they do respond to predictable patterns in motion, such as rotating wheels. In The Transporters the vehicles are all modes of transport that run along lines - trains or trams. The faces depict 15 key emotions, from happy, kindly or excited to sad, jealous or angry, and the stories focus more on these facial expressions than on action or plot.

Each episode deals with a different emotion. In the first show, most of the Transporters are happy because they are doing what they enjoy. This prompts questions that can be asked of the child: What do you like doing? How can you tell when other people are happy or not? Different people are happy for different reasons, so what does your brother or sister like doing?

The resource is the final commission of Culture Online, the now defunct interactive resources arm of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and is a collaboration between the National Autistic Society and Cambridge University's Autism Research Centre.

More than 40,000 copies of the DVD have been distributed to parents, teachers and carers. Free copies will be available at the Culture Online stand at the Education Show, Birmingham NEC, March 22-24,

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