Cartoons draw out what empathy is

10th February 2012 at 00:00
Children with autism learn to recognise emotions with the help of a TV series. Julia Belgutay reports

Children with autism can learn empathy through watching specially- designed cartoons, research has shown. The study, led by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge, assessed the ability of children with autism to recognise emotions before and after watching The Transporters.

The TV series features eight toy vehicles with actors' faces displaying emotions. Part of a child's toy set, they come to life whenever their owner leaves the room. The use of real faces makes it easier for children to transfer what they learned into reality, and although children with autism often avoid looking into people's faces, the fact that they are grafted on to vehicles encourages them to do so.

The vehicles - the two trams, two cable cars, a chain ferry, a coach, a funicular railway, and a tractor - were chosen because the experts believe children with autism prefer vehicles which move on tracks or cables to those that move freely, like cars and planes.

In one of the five-minute episodes, the transporter characters are seen talking to each other about being happy, smiling and displaying happy facial expressions.

For the four-week duration of the research, the children - aged four to seven - watched The Transporters DVD every day. Before and after the study, they were tested on their emotional vocabulary and recognition.

The researchers found they had improved in all areas, and called for similar teaching methods to be implemented in British classrooms. "We would like to see teaching methods such as these become part of all classrooms. This would make schools better suited to people with autism," said Professor Baron-Cohen. "A little empathy on the part of designers of educational resources may help the development of empathy in children with autism".

The study, carried out by Professor Baron-Cohen and Dr Emma Ashwin from Cambridge University, Dr Ofer Holan, of Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and their team, was published last month.

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