Researchers believe they have developed a psychological technique that improves the mental wellbeing of children with autism - through an activity that invents tiny characters the kids can then imagine are in their heads helping them out with their thoughts.
The technique - based on CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy - aims to build "social and emotional resilience," particularly for high-functioning children with autism, by recruiting imaginary homunculi characters.
Homunculi are tiny human or human-like creatures. The term is historical, from a time when the fetus was thought to be formed from a microscopic but fully formed human being.
Prof. Tommy MacKay, from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, is one of two researchers presenting their work on the CBT technique at a British Psychological Society meeting today, Thursday January 9, 2014.
He 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."
Dr. Anne Greig, the other researcher 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 researchers describe the CBT technique more fully in a book published in 2013, The homunculi approach to social and emotional wellbeing.
The psychologists 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 was tested in the research project being presented, 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."
In one part of study, 20 children of high school age completed the 10-week course of therapy. These children were equally mixed between those with Asperger's syndrome (high-functioning autism), and others with emotional and behavioural difficulties.
Testing at the end of 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."