An animated DVD, produced by scientists and film makers, teaches two to eight-year-old autistic children to recognise emotions.
Working with British actor Stephen Fry, researchers and media experts have created a remarkable series of 15 short animated stories that are transporting autistic children into a world where they can explore simple emotions such as being happy, sad, angry and afraid.
"Children with autism and Asperger Syndrome love order and predictability. So they shy away from people. To them, we're confusing and unpredictable," said Simon Baron-Cohen, professor and director of Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge.
"They like trains, trams and other mechanical objects that behave in simple predictable ways, but not faces and emotions which are less predictable," he said.
"Our research suggested that if we graft real faces and emotions on to toy trains, trams, cable cars and chain-ferries things that they love then we could encourage children to pay attention to, and identify, human emotions."
A new study from Cambridge University's Autism Research Centre looked at the impact of watching these animations. It shows that after using the DVD for 15 minutes a day over four weeks, most autistic children caught up with other children in their ability to recognise emotions, reports Sciencealert.
"After only watching three or so episodes he knew the names of every character," said the father of an autistic boy. "He then said to me, 'Look, Daddy's happy'. This was the first time he'd ever said this. Ever."
The DVD featuring real human faces on animated toy vehicles was launched in Australia on Monday. It has been available in Britain and has been distributed to 40,000 families.
"Programmes such as this which are highly motivating for young children with autism are very useful for teaching them about things that they are usually not very interested in, like faces and emotions," said Cheryl Dissanayake, director of the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre at La Trobe University in Melbourne.
The resource pack was developed with support from the British government's Culture Online programme and is being distributed by Changing Media Development Ltd.