Just think about Phil Mitchell’s big red face for a moment.

Imagine his sweaty, ruddy cheeks, the perpetual frown carved into his bald head, his snarled lips and beady eyes. Looks angry doesn’t he?

To the majority of us, the telltale signs of the emotion “anger” are easy to identify. But to many people on the autistic spectrum, identifying human emotions can be tricky.

Audio description is primarily a service for blind and partially sighted people but researcher Judith Garman suggests that these services can actually help people on the autistic spectrum gain a greater depth of understanding of a programme.

Autism is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in very different ways. But typically, someone with autism will have difficulty understanding facial expressions and moods.

Audio description provides an audio track which describes what is happening on screen and a key element of this is the description of human expressions and emotions.

For example, the description “Phil bursts into the room looking angry” identifies the emotion which the viewer may find difficult to understand.

Someone on the autistic spectrum may struggle to recognize faces so identifying characters can be problematic but that can be overcome by a description like “Max, Tanya and Lauren are having breakfast” which clearly identifies the characters for the viewer.

Some people on the autistic spectrum may show signs of monotropism which means they focus in great detail on one or two things, failing to look at everything broadly. This can lead to the person missing vital information or taking things out of context. The description “Abi looks sadly at the engagement ring” again identifies the emotion but this time it puts it into context and draws attention to the object that matters; in this case it’s an engagement ring.

Judith Garman’s research suggests that a broader application of audio description has the potential to enrich the viewing experience for people on the autistic spectrum. The service not only contributes to the understanding of and engagement with television programmes but also helps grant independence for people who otherwise might rely on others to explain content to them.

Her research has only looked into small test groups but nevertheless it opens up an interesting debate and adds another value to the audio description service.

Do you know someone on the autistic spectrum who uses audio description? Are there other conditions which could benefit from the service? Could audio description be a useful tool in focusing the attention of someone with ADHD? What about subtitles? Could they help with literacy or Dyslexia? A campaign in Australia called “Cap That!” encourages teachers to use subtitles in the classroom to help improve literacy. Is this something we should be doing in the UK?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Adam Watkins, Scripter, Audio Description