A new study conducted at the University of Haifa has found that virtual reality can teach autistic children street crossing.
The researchers discovered that children with autism improved their road safety skills after practicing with a unique virtual reality system.
"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 Profs. Naomi Josman and Tamar Weiss, from the Department of Occupational Therapy at the University of Haifa.
One of the main problems among children with autism is their inability to learn how to safely cross the street, a necessary skill for independent living.
In the study, the researchers found that a computer simulator is more effective in teaching street-crossing than the traditional classroom teaching or practicing it in the natural setting, which is dangerous.
The study involved six autistic children aged seven to 12. The children spent a month practicing to cross virtual streets, wait for the virtual light at the crosswalk to change and look left and right for virtual cars through a simulator programmed by Yuval Naveh.
The children mastered the different levels of the virtual reality system, including the ninth or most difficult level, wherein more vehicles travel at high speed.
Then, they successfully applied their virtual skill in a local practice area complete with a street, crosswalk and traffic signals.
They learned how to stop on the sidewalk before stepping into the street, to look at the colour of the traffic light, to cross only when the light was green and to cross without waiting too long.
Here too, the kids exhibited an improvement in their skills, following the training on the virtual street, with three of the children showing considerable improvement.
"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," said Profs. Josman and Weiss.