Examine Reveals that Puppets Enhance Engagement and Studying for Youngsters with ASD
Dolls are great fun for many children, but new study shows that they can be especially effective for children with the autism spectrum who have difficulty engaging in their school lessons and who have difficulty learning like their classroom peers .
The study, conducted by researchers at the Yale Child Study Center and published in the journal Autism Research, is the first of its kind to test only anecdotal evidence that children with ASD pay attention to and learn from dolls.
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Researchers conducted a series of experiments to assess the visual attention patterns of young children with ASD and a control group of neurotypical children. Specifically, they showed the children a video of an interaction between a colorful doll named Violet and a person named “Z”. For the experiment, the children were in a dark, soundproof room in front of a widescreen LED monitor, and eye-tracker software was used to determine where their attention wandered during the 86-second video.
Research showed that dolls were able to attract the attention of children on the autism spectrum. Both the children with ASD and the neurotypical children spent approximately the same amount of time observing the doll’s face, and both showed a preference for looking at the talking doll as the listening person’s face.
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The difference between the two groups was that children with autism showed no preference while she spoke to look at Z’s face, as did the neurotypical children. Instead, they mostly ignored her face and instead looked at her body or at the ball that Z and Violet were playing with. With Violet, the doll, however, children with ASD showed much more typical reactions and watched her face when she spoke. These results were similar in children with mild symptoms of autism and in children with more pronounced symptoms.
This leads researchers to believe that dolls could be useful tools in building community engagement and making learning easier for these children. Dolls could be instrumental in developing new therapies to help children with ASD learn.
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“Children with autism are less likely to be attentive to their social partners and become emotionally involved with them, which limits their exposure to a variety of important learning opportunities and experiences. In the present study, we found that while children with autism paid less attention than normally developing peers when an interactive partner was human, their attention was largely typical when the interactive partner was Violet, the doll, “says the study co-author, Katarzyna Chawarska, the Emily Fraser Beede Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, and the Director of the National Institutes of Health Autism Center of Excellence at the Yale Child Study Center. “Our results underscore the attention and affective benefits of dolls, which we hope can be used to enhance therapeutic efforts in children with ASD.”
“For many years I have observed how dolls can appeal to children with ASD in meaningful ways and often create unusual emotional connections,” says Cheryl Henson, daughter of the famous puppeteer Jim Henson and president of the Jim Henson Foundation, who learn in the development of the. “I was thrilled when the Yale Child Study Center showed interest in doing the very first clinical research into how dolls are seen by children with ASD.”
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“The results add scientific weight to our anecdotal experiences and suggest that dolls could be an effective tool in helping children with ASD improve their social engagement, which is very exciting.”
The researchers believe that dolls could be an “entry point” to help parents, teachers, and therapists open lines of communication with children with autism, help them understand human social cues, and encourage them to interact with their peers.
Further studies are needed to confirm these results and determine how dolls can be used effectively to improve communication and support existing therapy techniques.