Planes, Trains and Autism

From Catalyst

By Dr. Jonica Newby
12th Feb 2009

To see the full video, click the link above or here.

NARRATION It helps to have a sense of humour with a kid like Virginia.

Neva Sultana: She's so literal. Peter and I are standing in the kitchen and we're saying, come on, we haven't got time. Hop to it. So she literally gets up and hops to the stairs. Then we asked her to do her homework. Said, come on, pull your socks up. And she did. she pulled her socks up and said, it doesn't make any difference, Mum. Laugh.

Virginia: It's got things about studying the bubbles in ice. I never knew that you could do that. Neva Sultana: She's got the reading age of a 21 year old. But when it comes to social skills ha, ooh, that's another question

Dr Jonica Newby: Kids with Aspergers or other high functioning forms of autism are classic Little Professors - they know a lot and are great on detail - but when it comes to reading other people's feelings, well, they're just not hardwired for it. Human society can be as baffling as if they'd come from another planet.

NARRATION So can a child like Virginia learn to understand a world that is alien to her - the world of human emotions? ............. As one of the world's Asperger's experts, Dr Tony Attwood sees the consequences of these social blind spots - even when it comes to simple affection.

Dr Tony Attwood: Kids with Asperger's say, why are you obsessed by it? Why, why do you have to be told you're loved all the time? Why do you have to be touched? And I've got far more interesting things to do than to show affection to you. And it, it's not a hug. It's a squeeze.

NARRATION And that rejection of that parent's affection. It's heartbreaking for parents.

Neva Sultana: And she said, how do I know that people love me. And I said, oh Virginia, that's, you know, we, we show love by we giving each other hugs and she said, yeah, but how do I know that?

NARRATION So could you in fact teach love? By late 2008, Dr Attwoods team was ready to find out. They'd developed the worlds first cognitive behavioural therapy for affection - and Virginia was their test pilot.

Dr Kate Sofrinoff: So what we're going to do now is explore some things about feelings and emotions.

NARRATION At the heart of the program was a decision to cast the kids in a role they could understand - that of scientist studying the human species.

Dr Tony Attwood: So they were little explorers in a new land with a new species that have got a behaviour that is totally bewildering. But there must be a reason for it somewhere.

Dr Kate Sofrinoff: Can you tell me someone you really really like or really really love.

Neva Sultana: We had a thermometer. And on that thermometer from zero to 100 we had to place the family. Well, Mum and Dad didn't quite score the 100. And I thought we would be first. No, it was the Irwin family that scored 100 percent, but Mum and Dad came in second at 99 point 99.

NARRATION Despite the kids clear intelligence and determination to provide accuracy to two decimal places, these were tricky concepts.

Dr Tony Attwood: Ah Virginia was saying that when we were asking her questions about affection she said, these are the hardest questions I have ever been asked in my life.

Dr Jonica Newby: When you think about it, affection is complex - it means understanding that other people have emotional needs.

NARRATION But before you can even get to that stage, you need to be able to recognise that other people have emotions. Upshot from TV: Charlie is feeling happy. Who else is feeling happy. Is it Sally ...

NARRATION These are the transporters. They were developed for younger kids by the UK's leading Asperger's researcher - Professor Simon Baron Cohen.

Professor Simon Baron Cohen: Children with autism tend to avoid looking at faces. So what we decided to do was to put human faces onto mechanical vehicles so that we could grab the child's attention. And without them even realising it they'd be looking at people. We expected to see maybe some improvement. But we never expected to see that the children not only caught up to typical levels, that's to say the level of a child of their age, but also generalised their understanding to novel material.

NARRATION So that's learning about other people's emotions - but how do these little professors deal with their own? Not well, is the answer.

Virginia: Well its like a tsunami crashing and devastating people and homes. Jonica: That's what you're anger's like?

Virginia: yeah. Neva Sultana: Everything is either neutral or its extreme. So if she feels happiness, she's about to burst. If she feels angry, you're looking at a volcano.

NARRATION The other pioneering program Prof Attwood's team have developed teaches emotional regulation for anger and anxiety.

Dr Tony Attwood: We go into the physiology. We go into when you get angry, how your body changes, the adrenaline, the heart rate changes, the perspiration to make you cool and slippery. All these sorts of things they find fascinating. They are fascinated by facts.

Dr Tony Attwood: The result is it works. I'm delighted to say that we have scientifically proven that these strategies do work in reducing anxiety and anger.

NARRATION So I suspect that in long-term we will actually see brain changes that are occurring.

Dr Jonica Newby: It's, it's an exciting early field really. Dr Tony Attwood:It is. We're right at the forefront of this

NARRATION While these programs have now proven themselves, the Affection program is so new, Virginia was one of the first in the world to try it. So, was it possible for a kid like Virginia to learn to understand affection?

Neva Sultana: Virginia said, Mum is that why we have affection? Is that why we hug? Oh now I understand why people do that. Oh Mum I'm so happy.

NARRATION And what about hugs - what does Virginia think of hugs now? Hug.

Jonica: Well, I liked that, what did you think? Virginia:I said, I gave it, more than 5 both laugh.

Dr Jonica Newby: Thank you Virginia, its been lovely talking to you. Virginia:Thanks. It's been lovely talking to you too.