Inside the mind of a child with autism

Nudged by an author and a former journalist, researchers to study therapy incorporating animated character

By: New York Times | Published: April 13, 2014 12:37 am

THERAPISTS who specialise in autism often use a child’s own interests, toys or obsessions as a way to connect, and sometimes to reward effort and progress on social skills. The more eye contact a child makes, for example, the more play time he or she gets with those precious maps or stuffed animals.

But now a group of scientists and the author of a new book are suggesting that those favourite activities could be harnessed in a deeper, more organic way. If a child is fascinated with animated characters like Thomas the Tank Engine, why not use those characters to prompt social development?

Millions of parents do this routinely, if not systematically, flopping down on the floor with a socially distant child to play act the characters themselves.

“We individualise therapy to each child already, so if the child has an affinity for certain animated characters, it’s absolutely worth studying a therapy that incorporates those characters meaningfully,” said Kevin Pelphrey, director of the child neuroscience laboratory at Yale.

He and other researchers, including John D E Gabrieli of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Simon Baron-Cohen of the University of Cambridge and Pamela Ventola of Yale, are proposing a study to test the approach.

The idea came from Ron Suskind, a former Wall Street Journal reporter whose new book Life, Animated describes he and his wife Cornelia’s experience reaching their autistic son, Owen, through his fascination with Disney movies like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. It was Suskind’s story that first referred to “affinity therapy”.

He approached the researchers to put together a clinical trial based on the idea that some children can develop social and emotional instincts through the characters they love.

“The hypothesis they have put forward is sound, and absolutely worth studying,” said Sally J Rogers, a professor of psychiatry at the MIND Institute of the University of California, Davis. “If you think about these animated characters, they’re strong visual stimuli; the emotions of the characters are exaggerated, those eyebrows and the big eyes, the music accompanying the expressions.”

The researchers brought together by Suskind have written a proposal. It calls for a 16-week trial for 68 children with autism, ages four to six. Half the children would receive affinity therapy, using shows or movies they love.

The other half, the control group, would engage in the same amount of interaction with a therapist but in free play, led by the child’s interest. Therapists have had some success using the latter approach, most notably in a therapy called Floortime, developed by Dr Stanley Greenspan.

In autism therapy, progress is measured in increments and tends to be slow, experts say. But the disorder — the autism spectrum, as it is known — includes a very diverse group of children whose prospects for improvement are unpredictable and individual.

Pelphrey said that affinity therapy would deploy similar techniques. “We would have the child enter the social setting, with Thomas and Percy and the other characters,” and learn through them about eye contact, joint play and friendship, he said. The scientists plan to submit their study proposal to the National Institute of Mental Health for funding.    NYT

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