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Cartoons with faces to help autistic children

LONDON (AFP) - British autism experts launched an innovative new way of helping children with the condition to recognize emotions, using youngster-friendly animated videos.

A DVD entitled 'The Transporters' features the adventures of toy vehicles which have real moving human faces digitally pasted on, with each of 15 episodes focused on a particular emotion, such as happiness, fear and surprise.

"Autistic children are drawn to and fascinated by vehicles because of their predictable and repetitive motion," said Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, which co-produced the DVD.

"We decided to combine toy vehicles and human faces to create an entertaining way of helping them learn about emotions and facial expressions," he told AFP.

Autistic children dislike the unpredictability of human behaviour, typically shying away from contact with others, and have a limited capacity to understand other people's emotions.

A study of 20 autistic children showed that, after a month of watching the series, their ability to recognise emotions had markedly improved, enough to catch up with typically-developing children in their age-group.

One parent, whose five-year-old son Tom participated in the initial research, said it also improved his relations with his siblings.

"Tom and his sister Sophia would often fight because they didn't understand each other," explained Carole, without giving her full name. "As well as helping Tom, the DVD helped her to empathise with her brother's problems and find ways to help and communicate better with him."

She praised the decision to distribute the DVD -- narrated by British actor Stephen Fry -- for free.

"Other materials designed to help autistic children are usually extremely expensive, less stimulating and require constant active engagement from the parents," she said.

Professor Baron-Cohen hopes that families receiving one of the 30,000 DVDs will volunteer to help the team conduct a more in-depth investigation of the effects of the project.

The next step, he told AFP, is to carry out research with autistic children as young as two to see if the findings can help them. He also hopes to probe the changes taking place in the brains of children using the series.

The DVD includes material to accompany the animation series, such as interactive quizzes, to help children and parents reap the full benefits of the content.

'The Transporters' was produced by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, in conjunction with the Autism Research Centre and animation production company Catalyst Pictures.

Nina Sologubenko