Autistic children can improve their road safety skills by using a computer-based virtual reality learning program, according to new research conducted by scientists at the University of Haifa in Israel.

Researchers Prof. Naomi Josman and Prof. Tamar Weiss from the university’s Department of Occupational Therapy, found that a month-long program of virtual reality training designed locally could help the children, aged between seven and 12, dramatically improve their ability to cross the road safely.

One in 150 children in the US have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) according to a 2007 Centers for Disease Control report. For these children, the ability to copy with day-to-day situations is often limited.

One of the main problems they face is their inability to learn how to safely cross the street, a necessary skill for independent living. While acquiring this skill could greatly improve an autistic child’s independence, most of the coaching methods in use today are designed for the classroom, and have been shown as ineffective.

It is widely recognized that the best way to teach children with autism is through repeated practice in natural settings. The dangers involved in crossing a street, however, rule this method out. Virtual reality is a good alternative.

“Children with autism rarely have opportunities to experience or to learn to cope with day-to-day situations. Using 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 Josman and Weiss.

Six autistic children were involved in the study. The children spent a month practicing to cross virtual streets, wait for a virtual light at the crossroads to change, and to look left and right for virtual cars.

The children quickly mastered the different levels of the virtual reality system, including the ninth – most difficult level, where vehicles travel at high speed. They then applied their virtual skills to a local practice area where they were able to navigate a street, crosswalk and traffic signals.

In testing, the researchers found the children showed an improvement in their skills following the training on the virtual street. Three children were found to show considerable improvement.

The Haifa research team included Hadass Milika Ben-Chaim, then a student in the Occupational Therapy master’s program and Shula Friedrich, the principle of the Haifa Ofer School for Children with Autism.

“Previous studies have shown that autistic children respond well to computer learning. In this research we learned that their intelligence level or severity of their autism doesn’t affect their ability to understand the system and therefore this is an important way to improve their cognitive and social abilities,” Josman and Weiss said.


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