Study Shows that Puppets Increase Engagement and Learning for Kids with ASD

Puppets are great fun for many children, but a new study shows that they may be particularly impactful for children on the autism spectrum who struggle to stay engaged with their school lessons and tend to have trouble learning in the ways their peers are capable of in the classroom.

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 what was previously only anecdotal evidence that children with ASD pay attention to and learn from puppets.

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The researchers conducted a series of experiments to evaluate 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 brightly colored puppet named Violet and a human called “Z.” Children were in a dark, soundproof room in front of a widescreen LED monitor for the experiment, and eye-tracker software was used to determine where their attention traveled during the 86-second video.

The research showed that puppets were capable of holding the attention of children on the autism spectrum. Both the children with ASD and the neurotypical children spent about the same amount of time watching the puppet’s face, and they both showed a preference for watching the talking puppet over the face of the listening person.

Photo: Adobe Stock/New Africa

What was different between the two groups was that children with autism did not show a preference for looking at Z’s face while she was speaking as the neurotypical children did. Instead, they mostly ignored her face and, instead, looked at her body or at the ball Z and Violet were playing with. When it came to Violet the puppet, though, children with ASD exhibited much more typical reactions, watching her face when she spoke. These findings were similar in children with mild autism symptoms and in those with more pronounced symptoms.

This makes researchers believe that puppets could be useful tools for strengthening social engagement and facilitating learning for these children. Puppets could be instrumental in developing new therapies to help children with ASD learn.

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

“For many years, I’ve observed how puppets can engage children with ASD in meaningful ways, often establishing an uncommonly emotional connection,” says Cheryl Henson, daughter of celebrated puppeteer Jim Henson and president of the Jim Henson Foundation, who helped engineer the study. “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.”

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“The findings lend scholarly weight to our anecdotal experiences and suggest that puppets could be a powerful tool to help children with ASD improve their social engagement, which is very exciting.”

The researchers believe puppets could be an “entry point” to help parents, teachers, and therapists open lines of communication with children with autism, help them learn to understand human social cues, and encourage them to engage in social exchanges with peers.

Further studies will be needed to corroborate these results, as well as to determine how to effectively use puppets to improve communication and assist with existing therapy techniques.

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