Teaching emotion recognition skills to young children with autism: a randomised controlled trial of an emotion training programme


  • Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared.


Background:  Children with autism have difficulties in emotion recognition and a number of interventions have been designed to target these problems. However, few emotion training interventions have been trialled with young children with autism and co-morbid ID. This study aimed to evaluate the efficacy of an emotion training programme for a group of young children with autism with a range of intellectual ability.

Methods:  Participants were 55 children with autistic disorder, aged 4–7 years (FSIQ 42–107). Children were randomly assigned to an intervention (= 28) or control group (= 27). Participants in the intervention group watched a DVD designed to teach emotion recognition skills to children with autism (the Transporters), whereas the control group watched a DVD of Thomas the Tank Engine. Participants were assessed on their ability to complete basic emotion recognition tasks, mindreading and theory of mind (TOM) tasks before and after the 4-week intervention period, and at 3-month follow-up.

Results:  Analyses controlled for the effect of chronological age, verbal intelligence, gender and DVD viewing time on outcomes. Children in the intervention group showed improved performance in the recognition of anger compared with the control group, with few improvements maintained at 3-month follow-up. There was no generalisation of skills to TOM or social skills.

Conclusions:  The Transporters programme showed limited efficacy in teaching basic emotion recognition skills to young children with autism with a lower range of cognitive ability. Improvements were limited to the recognition of expressions of anger, with poor maintenance of these skills at follow-up. These findings provide limited support for the efficacy of the Transporters programme for young children with autism of a lower cognitive range.