Virtual Reality Improves Social Attention in Autistic Kids

June 7th, 2011 by Kel Smith | Filed under Cognitive, Innovation, Niche Construction, Virtual Reality

child with virtual reality headgearNew research presented at the American Psychiatric Association (APA) 2011 Annual Meeting suggests that virtual reality training may improve social attention skills in school-aged children with higher-functioning autism.

A pilot program outfitted 18 children with head-mounted virtual reality equipment, taking part in a virtual classroom setting with avatar “peers” who gradually faded to transparency if ignored for too long. Looks toward the “disappearing” avatars improved during conditioning sessions.

Session discussant James McCracken, MD, professor and director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Division at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Medscape Medical News that “changing executive function is allowing someone to practice often enough that it becomes effortless.” He continues:

“Virtual reality allows us to create a replica of a social environment and then assess an individual’s behavior in that paradigm. While we would like to believe that we can characterize a child’s social adjustment by the standard questions to parents or teachers or person themselves, in actual fact our measures of social behavior and social functioning … really fail us in measuring change in a treatment trial.”

This type of thing has been investigated before. Continuing a trend in emerging technology, the Center for Brain Health in Dallas has taken a sci-fi approach to helping autistic children cope socially by bringing them into a virtual world where they actually have their own avatars. Monitored by therapists, children with autism are provided an opportunity to practice socialization skills in a relatively stress-free environment.

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