Tuesday, January 09, 2007

New DVD to help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre (ARC)at Cambridge University and David Lammy, Culture Minister, today launch anovel animation DVD to help young children with autism.The Transporters DVD, commissioned by Culture Online, part of the Departmentfor Culture, Media and Sport, aims to help children with autism to look atthe human face and to learn about emotions. The series of 15 five-minuteepisodes features the adventures of eight lovable toys with human faces,each focusing on a different human emotion. Stephen Fry is the narrator.Behind the fun and colourful world of The Transporters lies some of thelatest Cambridge research. The Autism Research Centre has been working withCulture Online and Catalyst Pictures to find new ways to help children withautism learn about emotions. Children with autism tend to avoid looking athuman faces and find it hard to understand why facial features move in theway that they do. This inability to read emotions on the human face impairstheir ability to communicate with other people. Professor Simon Baron-Cohencomments: "Just as a child with dyslexia can be helped significantly byusing tailored educational methods to ease them into reading words, so achild with autism can be helped significantly by using tailored educationalmethods to ease them into reading faces."Research by Dr Ofer Golan and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen from ARC foundthat following a four-week period of watching the DVD for 15 minutes a day,children with high-functioning autism caught up with typically developingchildren of the same age in their performance on emotion recognition tasks.One parent who took part in the clinical trials said of their son with autism:"We have noticed a change in his behaviour, speech and range of emotionalexpressions since he started watching The Transporters. It's a bit likesomeone's flicked a switch in his head."Children with autism are often fascinated by rotating wheels, spinning tops,rotating fans, and mechanical, lawful motion. They prefer predictablepatterns. For this reason all the toy vehicles featured in the TheTransporters run on tracks or on lines. The 15 key emotions portrayed inThe Transporters aimed at 2 to 8-year-olds are: happy, sad, angry, afraid,excited, disgusted, surprised, tired, unfriendly, kind, sorry, proud, jealous,joking and ashamed. Each episode has an associated interactive quiz to helpthe child learn about the featured emotion.Jane Asher, President of the National Autistic Society, said: "This is sucha wonderful initiative and is going to make a huge difference to the livesof some very vulnerable children. Both the concept and the execution ofThe Transporters are excellent, and I'm very proud and grateful that theNAS is able to distribute 30,000 free copies of the DVDs to the people whoneed it. Having worked in the field of autism for over 20 years, I knowthat a sensitive approach like this is exactly what's needed, and I wish itthe success it deserves."The DVD will be sent out with a booklet for parents, teachers andcarers. Copies can be requested via the website at Lammy, Culture Minister, said: "The Transporters is the latestinteractive project from the Culture Online team, which has an enviablereputation for creating fun and engaging learning experiences. Imagine what aconfusing world it must be for a child who cannot understand the significanceof a smile or a frown. This project aims to make a very real difference tochildren with autism in helping them to understand human emotions."Claire Harcup, commissioning executive at Culture Online, said: "TheTransporters exemplifies what Culture Online projects are all about: it's funand engaging but has a serious intent. The Transporters uses ground-breakinganimation techniques to place human faces on the vehicles."Stephen Fry, who narrates The Transporters, said: "The Transporters is afun yet educational animation series that I am pleased to have been a partof. It is an important and worthwhile creation to help children with autismunderstand emotions."Notes to editors:1. The Autism Research Centre (ARC), directed by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen,is at the forefront internationally in developing new methods of interventionfor people with autism, as well as carrying out research into causes of thecondition. www.autismresearchcentre.com2. Culture Online was set up by the Department for Culture, Media and Sportin 2002. The Culture Online team work with partner organisations to createhighly targeted interactive resources. Culture Online projects are designedto encourage participation in the arts and culture through the innovativeuse of technology. Culture Online has produced 26 interactive projects whichhave won 22 major industry awards. In an open tender, Catalyst Pictures Ltd was selected as the productioncompany to make The Transporters. With over 20 years' experience producinganimated films for TV, they have brought considerable expertise to the project.4. The National Autistic Society (NAS) is the UK's leading charity forpeople with autistic spectrum disorders and their families. The NAS providesa range of services to help people with autism and Asperger syndrome livetheir lives with as much independence as possible. For more information aboutautism and for help in your area, call the NAS Autism Helpline on: 0845 0704004 10am-4pm, Monday to Friday, or visit the NAS website press information:* Sally Cryer, Kinetix Events Ltd, on behalf of the Autism Research Centre,University of Cambridge, tel: 01234 328330* Sean Connolly, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge, tel:01223 339671* Graham Thomas, Culture Online, tel: 020 7487 7215 / 07917* Kelly Brito, National Autistic Society, tel: 020 7903 story behind The TransportersProfessor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director, Autism Research Centre, Universityof Cambridge, talks about the science behind The TransportersChildren with autism love watching films about vehicles because, according toone theory, children and adults with autism spectrum conditions are strong'systemisers'. They are drawn to predictable, rule-based systems, whetherthese are repeating mathematical patterns, or repeating electrical patterns(e.g. light switches), or repeating patterns in films. They love lawfulrepetition. At the core of autism is an ability to deal effortlessly withsystems because they do not change and they are the same every time, and adisabling difficulty in dealing with the social world because it is alwayschanging unpredictably and is different every time.Vehicles whose motion is determined only by physical rules (such as vehiclesthat can only go back and forth along linear tracks) are much preferred bychildren with autism over vehicles like planes or cars whose motion can behighly variable, moving at the whim of the human driver operating them. TheTransporters is based around eight characters who are all vehicles suchphysical, rule-based motion. Such vehicles grab the attention of bothpreschoolers with autism and even those with 'low-functioning' childrenwith autism with significant learning difficulties. Onto these vehicles wegrafted real-life faces of actors showing emotions, and contextualised themin entertaining social interactions between the toy vehicles.The Transporters aims to teach not just some basic emotions (happy, sad,angry, disgust, fear, surprise) but also some more complex ones (ashamed,joking, jealous, proud, tired, sorry, kind, excited, worried, unfriendly, andgrumpy). The aim is that through hours of repetitive TV watching, childrenwith autism, instead of turning away from faces as they usually do becausethey are so unpredictable, thus missing out on crucial experience in learningabout emotional expressions, will tune into faces without even realizing theyare doing so. If you are a child who has difficulties with 'empathy', suchthat it is puzzling why a person's facial expression has suddenly changed,the hope is that you could become familiar with how people look when theyare surprised or afraid or proud through massive exposure to these patterns.Our team has conducted an evaluation of The Transporters as anintervention. One group of 25 children with autism (aged 4-7 years old)were given copies of the animation series to use over a four-week period,for 15 minutes per day. They were assessed prior to the intervention and atthe end of it. A typically developing control group (matched on age, sex, IQ,handedness, language, and parental educational level) were simply assessedat two time-points with the same four-week interval in between. Resultsindicate that children with high-functioning autism caught up with typicallydeveloping children on each task they were given. Notably, they caught up intheir ability to recognise emotional expressions tested using characters' facesthat had not appeared in the films themselves, thereby showing some degree ofgeneralisation as well. Generalising is something that children with autismtypically find difficult. This suggests that even with a relatively shortintervention period, gains are possible. This study is under review witha peer reviewed journal and will be made available in full via our websiteat The next stage is to conduct research withchildren with low-functioning autism.Claire Harcup, Commissioning Executive, Culture Online, talks about how TheTransporters came to be commissioned:When Culture Online was set up in 2002, one of our remits was to use ourprojects to engage the hard-to-reach. Twenty six projects later, we've achievedwhat we set out to do. In 2004, we thought we might be able to do somethinginteresting and useful for people with autism so we actively pursued thisaudience. With this in mind, we approached the National Autistic Society,who put us in touch with the Autism Research Centre and Professor SimonBaron-Cohen's team.It turned out to be a happy meeting. They quickly understood what we weretrying to do and put forward the idea of using animated characters withreal human faces to help young children with autism learn about facialexpressions and emotions. We could, they argued, create a world that wasdesigned specifically to appeal to the autistic brain, an experience socompelling that the children might engage with emotions, something theytypically find difficult.We liked the idea as a novel way of reaching out to an under-servedaudience. It also allowed us to bring the scientific and animation worldstogether in an unusual but potentially very productive partnership. Once DrOfer Golan had advised us on what elements would appeal to children withautism, we wrote the brief. After an open tender, we appointed CatalystPictures to develop the series.This was new territory - it was exciting but there were uncertainties. Therewas, of course, the possibility that the children wouldn't love the world wehad so carefully designed for them. What if we sent them screaming from theroom? What if they loved the series but didn't engage with the emotions? Wedecided to commission two pilot episodes and ask ARC to test them with ourtarget audience before we committed ourselves to the full series.The results were very encouraging. We made a few minor tweaks then commissionedthe next thirteen episodes. The preliminary results of the more extensiveresearch on the full series are equally promising and we're delighted to beable to distribute The Transporters free to families of children with autismbetween the ages of two and eight. The story doesn't stop there, however.Over the next few months, ARC will be continuing its research into thepotential benefits of the series. We hope that's there's equally good newsto come.Nik Lever, Managing Director, Catalyst Pictures, talks about the challengesof putting real faces on animated toy vehiclesWith over 20 years' experience producing animated films for TV, CatalystPictures won the open tender to produce The Transporters. It was importantto create an engaging environment for The Transporters and after muchdeliberation we settled on the idea of an elaborate vehicle play set ina child's bedroom. From the outset the most important - and in productionterms the most challenging technically - aspect of the entire series wassomething else that sets it apart from any other animated series, the useof real live action actors' faces on the animated characters.So how was it done? The Transporters series was produced using 3D computergraphic techniques. Putting the actors' faces onto the moving vehicles isunusual and caused the production team some early headaches. The actors werechosen after a casting session to represent a wide cross section of age andethnicity, and feature male and female characters with an emphasis on malecharacters that reflects the male-to-female ratio in autism. The actors hadto suffer the indignity of having their heads put into what was effectivelya vice! This was so that their faces could be filmed using the latest highdefinition cameras without any motion in the end of the nose.Although the actors appear to move in the show, their image is effectivelyprojected onto the front of the vehicle and then they move with the vehicle. Toachieve this, it was essential that the end of their nose stayed in oneplace. They could move their eyes and mouth, but they couldn't nod. Afterselecting the shots that best suited the emotion in the story this wasfurther processed to ensure that the 'end of the nose' stayed absolutely still.During the course of production the virtual models that were built to createthe animations got bigger and bigger, eventually getting up to over 11million polygons. At a critical stage, the whole scene refused to render -create the final images that are seen on the DVD. This was due to the memoryrequirement for the shot going over the limit set for a Windows applicationof 2GB. This caused the production team some anxious moments and was fixedby moving from 32-bit Windows onto 64-bit Windows. It was very fortunatethat this was released at just the right time to get the team over this veryworrying hurdle. The final memory requirement for a complete load was 8GB.Having created the films the production team still had the problem of creatingthe interactive DVD. This uses all the interactive features that are availableon a DVD video. The DVD was created using Sonic Scenarist software and usesa remarkable 275 different menu screens.