Health Scan: Virtual reality program helps autistic children cross the road

Teaching a child how to cross the street safely is a challenge for any parent, but especially when the child is autistic.

virtual reality 88 (photo credit: )
virtual reality 88
(photo credit: )
Teaching a child how to cross the street safely is a challenge for any parent, but especially when the child is autistic. Now, research at the University of Haifa has found that autistic children can improve their road safety skills by practicing with a unique virtual reality system. "Virtual simulations such as the one used in this research enables them to acquire skills that will make it possible for them to become independent," said occupational therapy Prof. Naomi Josman and Prof. Tamar Weiss, who conducted the research. Autism, which appears before the age of three, is a brain development disorder that disrupts social interaction and communication and causes restricted and repetitive behavior. "Children with autism rarely have opportunities to experience or learn to cope with day-to-day situations. Using simulations such as the one in this research enables them to acquire skills that will make it possible to become independent," they noted. Independence depends on mastering natural settings. One of the main problems faced by autistic children is their inability to learn how to cross a street safely. While acquiring this skill could greatly improve such children's independence, most of the methods used for teaching how to cross without danger have been designed for use in a classroom - and thus tend to be ineffective with autistic children. The best way to teach autistic children is through repeated practice in natural settings, but as doing so with streets poses a serious danger, it isn't easy. This is where virtual reality is very effective, as demonstrated by the research team that included Hadass Milika Ben-Chaim, then a student in the occupational therapy master's degree program, and Shula Friedrich, principal of the Haifa Ofer School for Autistic Children. Six autistic children aged seven to 12 spent one month learning how to cross virtual streets, to wait for the virtual light to change and to look left and right for virtual cars using a simulation programmed by Yuval Naveh. They showed substantial improvement: at the beginning of the study, the average child was able to use the second level of the software; by the end, they had mastered the ninth level, in which more vehicles travel at a higher speed. But the researchers weren't interested in teaching a virtual skill; they wanted to see if the children were able to master this aspect of the real world. A local practice area with a street, crosswalk and traffic signals was used. The children's ability to cross safely was tested before and after their virtual learning. Here too, the children exhibited improvement following the training, with three of them showing considerable improvement. One 12-year-old, who had been in his school's road safety program but was unable to learn how to cross a street safely, did much better after taking part in the study. He learned how to stop on the sidewalk before stepping into the street, look at the color of the light and cross promptly only when it was green. "Previous studies have shown that autistic children respond well to computer learning. In this research we learned that their intelligence level or severity of autism doesn't affect their ability to understand the system, so this is an important way to improve their cognitive and social abilities," the two main authors said. JUMP TO STRONGER KNEES Women who play soccer can learn how to land after jumping without hurting their knees if they practice jumping rope with their knees bent, according to a Texas researcher. Dr. Kaare Kolstad of the Methodist Hospital in Houston told UPI that with the growing number of female soccer players in the US, there are many more knee injuries among them - six to nine times more than in men. Muscular changes in female athletes as they get older reduces their knee joint control, so they are liable to be injured when jumping or stopping in their tracks. But Kolstad said bolstering the core muscles of the hip, back and abdomen by jumping rope can reduce the risk of injury. Juming up and down off a small platform or jumping forward from a straight position and landing with bent knees is also useful. A HELPING HAND FROMSARAH There are always surprises at Yad Sarah. Recently, a family of Christian tourists called the voluntary organization's medical equipment demonstration center in Jerusalem. Director Shani Rosenfeld learned that their rental car had been stolen with all their belongings, including a US-made ventilation device for sleep apnea. Without it, a patient can wake up for split seconds hundreds of times a night due to momentary cessation of breathing, which can be dangerous. "Usually it is difficult to lend these out because the masks have to fit properly and the family needs to know the right levels at which to set the machine," she said. Before sending the visitors to a company to rent one for the few days before their departure, a Yad Sarah official located the same type of device the family member had used in the US, and the name of a technician representing the company if they had any difficulties. The mask fit perfectly, and the family was touched and impressed, Rosenfeld said.