Puppets can attract and hold the attention of children with autism spectrum disorder, raising the potential for developing more engaging therapies that strengthen social engagement and facilitate learning.
The new study in the journal Autism Research is the first to test anecdotal evidence that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), like most youngsters, pay attention to puppets.
In a series of experiments, researchers examined the visual attention patterns of young children with ASD, alongside a control group of typically developing children, in response to a video depicting a lively interaction between Violet, a brightly colored puppet, and a human counterpart.
The researchers found that the attention patterns of children with ASD were similar to those of children in the control group when Violet spoke, with both sets of children spending a similar proportion of time watching her face and exhibiting a strong preference for the talking puppet over the listening person.
“Children with autism are less likely to attend to and to engage emotionally with their social partners, which limits their exposure to a host of important learning opportunities and experiences,” says coauthor Katarzyna Chawarska, professor of child psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, and director of the National Institutes of Health Autism Center of Excellence at the Yale Child Study Center.
“In the present study, we found that while children with autism paid less attention than typically developing peers when an interactive partner was human, their attention was largely typical when the interactive partner was Violet, the puppet. Our findings highlight the attentional and affective advantages of puppets which, hopefully, can be harnessed to augment the therapeutic efforts in children with ASD.”
Puppets engage kids with autism
The researchers created the experiment in collaboration with Cheryl Henson, a daughter of celebrated puppeteer Jim Henson and president of the Jim Henson Foundation.
“For many years, I’ve observed how puppets can engage children with ASD in meaningful ways, often establishing an uncommonly emotional connection,” says Henson, who was a puppet builder on The Muppet Show and worked with Sesame Street in the 1990s, among other productions. “I was thrilled when the Yale Child Study Center expressed interest in conducting the first-ever clinical research exploring how puppets are seen by kids with ASD.