Use of Imaginary Helpers Improves ‘Wellbeing” of Children with Autism

ASD, Autism
Use of imaginary helpers improves ‘Wellbeing” of children with autism

Researchers believe the mental wellbeing of children with autism has the ability to improve through an the psychological technique of inventing tiny characters kids can then imagine are in their heads helping them out with their thoughts. 

Particularly for high-functioning children with autism, the technique based on cognitive behavioral therapy – aims to build “social and emotional resilience,” by recruiting imaginary homunculi characters. 

Prof. Tommy MacKay, from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, was one of two researchers presenting work on the CBT technique at a recent British Psychological Society meeting says “The homunculi approach is particularly suited to those with high functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, who often have difficulty identifying troubling feelings such as anger, fear and anxiety.” 

The other researcher, Dr. Anne Greig, and an educational psychologist for Argyll and Bute in Scotland, explains the “little people” approach:  “The homunculi are miniature agents with problem-solving missions and special gadgets who live inside the brain and help out with distressing thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Through inventing their own homunculi characters and stories, the children learn to cope with their real-life social problems.”  The CBT technique approach is more fully described in a book published in 2013, The homunculi approach to social and emotional wellbeing. They have been developing the homunculi approach for 10 years, which they have based on established ideas in cognitive behavioral therapy.

The technique is an involved activity that calls on a number of resources, including detailed examples of characters, their missions, and their gadgets, and a poster showing the skull with different components such as “thoughts and feelings” screens, and a “stop, think, do!” alarm.

This CBT program, which includes single case studies, group studies and ongoing work with whole classes and school year groups “to build resilience, extending the application of the program beyond autism spectrum disorders to wider populations” was tested in the research project being presented. 20 children of high school age completed the 10-week course of therapy in one part of study.

These children were equally mixed between those with emotional and behavioural difficulties and those with Asperger’s syndrome (high-functioning autism). Prof. MacKay and Dr. Greig’s study “showed that their mental wellbeing had significantly improved, and they experienced reduced levels of anxiety, depression, anger and stress.” at the end of testing.

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