Puppets Are Not Just for Fun!

By: Inas Essa

Researching the implementation of new therapies for children with autism has been growing dramatically to reach more accessible solutions and help parents and children get better results. Results of a new study from the Yale Child Study Center examined how using puppets as social partners alters attention for autistic children; it showed that puppets can attract and hold autistic children’s attention. These results raise the potential for developing more engaging therapies for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) children and could be implemented to strengthen social engagement and facilitate learning.

While several studies have highlighted using robots in therapeutic uses for ASD children, other similar agents, like puppets, remain unexplored. That happened as a result of the rapid growth in technology and artificial intelligence, which gave a push to the line of research evaluating the use of socially assistive robotics, or robots designed to promote the acquisition of social-communicative skills in neurodevelopmental disorders, including ASD.



Children and Puppets Face-to-Face

In a series of experiments, the researchers analyzed the visual attention patterns of a group of autistic children and a control group of typically developing children (TD) while watching a video depicting a puppet and a human engaged in a conversation.

The ASD group showed limited visual attention for the human speaker. This is consistent with earlier research showing that children with ASD exhibit a noticeable deficit in attention to human faces while speaking, but greater attention to the puppet speaker’s face. They also found that, unlike humans, expressive and verbal puppets attracted the autistic children group’s attention at comparable levels to the TD group.

While watching the video, ASD children paid less attention to the human speaking face; instead, they often looked at their body or the ball the puppet held. In contrast, the speaking puppet triggered more patterns of attention among the ASD group as it could engage in reciprocal interactions and deliver simplified, salient social-communicative cues.

“Children with autism are less likely to attend to and engage emotionally with their social partners, which limits their exposure to a host of important learning opportunities and experiences,” said study coauthor Katarzyna Chawarska, the Emily Fraser Beede Professor of Child Psychiatry at 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,” she added.



A New Tool to Enhance Communication

These findings shed light on the possibility of puppets serving as a catalyst in facilitating and enhancing social engagement and communication in young children with ASD since they can deliver simplified audiovisual social-communicative cues. That also could be of great importance since puppets are available and inexpensive. They may be flexibly programmed to match the intervention goals and can be highly responsive, not only to the dynamics of the therapeutic interaction but the child’s mood and level of interest as well.

“Our findings highlight the attentional and affective advantages of puppets which, hopefully, can be harnessed to augment the therapeutic efforts in children with ASD,” Chawarska concluded.




pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/Puppets facilitate attention to social cues in children with ASD

pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/Attention Vulnerabilities in Infants Later Developing ASD