While a bouncy tune chirps in the background, Sally, an animated cable car with a live-action human face, makes her way over a viaduct, beaming as a narrator explains how “very happy” she is to carry her passengers to their destination. Midway across, her cable clamp malfunctions, leaving her stuck high above a waterway running through a quiet village. Charlie, a happy-go-lucky tram with the face of a thirtysomething man, is her only hope of rescue. In careful, simple language, the narrator explains that Sally is afraid during the experience, while Charlie is happy when he succeeds in delivering her from danger. As each emotion is named, the characters grin, frown, or grimace accordingly.
No, it’s not the latest Disney project or Thomas the Tank Engine rip-off. It’s a new therapy for autism. Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the world’s preeminent autism experts, developed the DVD, and he says his research shows that it brings significant improvements to children with autism, a syndrome that has stubbornly resisted treatment after treatment. Called The Transporters, the DVD aims to teach kids on the higher level of the autistic spectrum a key skill that many of them find nearly impossible: how to understand emotions.
The number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder is increasing at an astounding rate, rising approximately tenfold in the past two decades. While the cause of this huge increase is still being debated—is it an actual rise in cases or simply an expansion in awareness and diagnosis?—more and more resources are being directed toward treating the rising number of children with the disorder.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many proven effective ways to spend those resources. Many parents are focusing on physical methods of treatment, such as medications and special diets, and some are even coughing up thousands—to the point of taking out second mortgages and emptying savings accounts—on often controversial and possibly risky treatments such as chelation, and hyperbaric oxygen chambers. But a method that has gained significant support from researchers and parents alike is behavioral therapy, or the study and analysis of autistic behavior with an eye toward offsetting key symptoms of the disorder.
With this in mind, The Transporters was created as a tool to target one of the largest symptoms of autism: the inability to recognize or comprehend emotions. Each episode involves a simple plotline, like a surprise birthday party, and focuses on a different emotion, beginning with the most basic—happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and surprise—and moving to the more sophisticated, like disgust, tiredness, pride, and shame. Every time a character reacts to his or her situation and presents an emotion, the narrator names it. For instance, once Charlie overcomes his vertigo and comes to Sally’s aid during her moment of peril, he says he feels “very proud” of his accomplishment, and his beaming face is shown close-up.
“In autism, there’s a lot of research showing difficulties in generalization—you can teach kids to repeat back the names [of emotions], but it’s difficult to achieve a level where they can apply what they’ve learned to new situations,” says Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge. “What we’ve set out to do is provide them a means of reaching that level on their own, where they learn to see emotions in varying contexts.”
Baron-Cohen says the video works because of his theory of systemizing: All human brains have a need to understand how systems works, a need that is set at different levels for different people. An autistic person, who appears lost in his or her own world, has a brain set to hypersystemizing. As such, children with autism love trains and other single-direction, systematic vehicles and tend to watch them carefully, both in reality and on TV.
Every detail in The Transporters is meant to cater to the autistic mind and teach kids how to understand other people’s emotions. Casting was based on an actor’s ability to produce clear emotional expressions, and a panel of 20 judges, mostly psychologists, was used to evaluate whether each face that appears in the episodes in fact represents the emotion to which it is matched. The eight characters—all vehicles that move slowly and follow predictable, one-way tracks—are animated, but each has a real human face superimposed on it so that any emotions expressed will be “real.” The characters interact with each other in four simple, predictable locations: a junction, a harbor, an observatory, and a quarry. “Past studies show that children with autism like mechanical objects and predictability,” Baron-Cohen says. “Here, we merged the two, keeping everything mechanical and linear—back and forth is the only possible movement, and the only characters are machines.”
The final product, 15 five-minute episodes along with 30 interactive quizzes and a written guide for parents, was released in the U.K. in January of 2007 and received an enthusiastic response: 40,000 copies were offered, free of charge, to families with autistic children between ages 2 and 8, and every one of the copies had been claimed within three months. An American version of the DVD was released in January 2009 and has received significant interest from schools, autism clinics and societies, and libraries, as well as an undisclosed number of parents.