'Affinity Therapy' by Simon Baron-Cohen

We asked Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre, to contribute to our Life, Animated Educational Resource. Below is his essay, 'Affinity Therapy', as inspired by the film and originally printed in our Education Resource.

Life, Animated contains an inspirational and revolutionary message for professionals working with the autism community, and for parents of children with autism, because it outlines a new way of making a connection with such children, and it offers a new method to help them make sense of the world and to communicate.

Unlike traditional methods for teaching children with autism which are often didactic forms of social skills training or involve extrinsic rewards to shape the child’s behavior, led by the teacher or therapist, Life Animated is led by the child’s own interests and is intrinsically rewarding. Ron Suskind goes so far as to coin a new phrase for such an approach, which he calls “affinity therapy”. But whatever we call it, let’s have a closer look at what’s going on.

In the case of his son, who was not communicating as a young child, the key that unlocked communication and that gave the young boy a way to make sense of the confusing social world was Disney movies. It may not be Disney movies for all kids with autism, but it worked for this particular child, because he was ‘obsessed’ with Disney movies. And that’s the first key principle. Find something that your particular child is ‘obsessed’ with, or (to use less stigmatizing language) what might be better described as being passionate about.

For this particular child, Disney movies also had a few other key elements: they were repeatable and therefore predictable, over and over again, and kids with autism love predictability. He could learn word, every action, every character, every inflection in the voice, and he could echo the lyrics back endlessly. And because he loved the movies, he didn’t need any external reward to engage with the material. It was intrinsically rewarding.

Secondly, Disney movies had a way of simplifying the complex social world into recognizable themes: the villain and the hero, how to resolve a moral dilemma, good versus evil, love versus hate or envy, savior versus oppression, etc. These are the archetypes of all stories from the Bible to Shakespeare, and Hollywood’s greatest writers had inadvertently helped kids with autism by packaging these themes into neat, entertaining, repeatable, and simplified bite-size chunks, which could give a child with autism a foot-hold into the otherwise confusing social world.

Our autism research has confirmed that these key principles do work. For an effective therapy for autism the material should be repeatable, predictable, help reduce social complexity to a simpler format, be intrinsically rewarding, and be based on the child’s own interests – child-led.  We showed how the kids’ TV animation series The Transporters had all of these characteristics – a movie about vehicles with emotions, but where the vehicles were entirely predictable and a source of pleasure and fascination for many kids with autism. Our research showed that watching The Transporters for just 15 minutes a day for one month led to significant gains in emotion understanding.

In a separate study we showed that Lego Therapy also led to benefits for children on the autism spectrum. Putting kids into groups of three, where they could do what they love, which is to build Lego constructions whether simple or complex, led to them gaining confidence in social skills within the intrinsically rewarding, predictable, logical world of Lego.

The key to what Ron Suskind calls affinity therapy is that the professional or parent has to identify what their particular child’s affinity is with. Is it trains? Is it Disney characters? Is it Lego? Or is it something entirely different? In all likelihood it will be with a topic that is highly predictable, highly repeatable, but critically, is something the child has latched on to of their own accord, not something imposed on the child by a well-meaning adult but who has ignored what that particular child loves to do all day every day.

When we listen to the child, observe the child, and follow their lead, harnessing their interests and building the therapy around that specific passion, we are three-quarters of the way to success. Ron joined in with his son’s passion, and through that they made their connection. That is the revolutionary and inspirational message of Life Animated.

Simon Baron-Cohen
Director, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University and Trustee, the Autism Research Trust.

Life, Animated comes to UK cinemas 9 December

Simon Baron-Cohen hosts a Q&A screening in Cambridge on 6 December: tickets