For researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel, a somewhat pared-down urban street scene has proven its worth in teaching moderately functioning autistic children how to safely cross the street, gaining more independence in the process. Naomi Josman and colleagues created a virtual crossing through a divided roadway, eventually leading to a Toys"R"Us store. The program kept track of how often its six participants, aged 7 to 16, looked both ways before crossing, whether they observed approaching cars, how often they crossed during a red light, and how many virtual accidents they had.
Josman, a professor of occupational therapy, said the kids immediately took to their virtual reality practice sessions, and become increasingly focused. They also improved noticeably. At the onset of their training, the students averaged a score of only 2.66 out of 9. By the end, nearly all had advanced to the final level of difficulty, achieving an average score of 8.91 and reducing their cumulative accident tally from 22 to zero.
But would those improvements translate back to the real world? To find out, the Israeli researchers videotaped the children both before and after their virtual training as they walked within a park that uses traffic lights and small cars to simulate street crossings in a controlled environment. One low-functioning eighth-grader in the study, a 16-year-old boy named Ben, essentially ignored both his teacher and a traffic light during a visit before his virtual reality training.
“At the end, he was standing and waiting for the green light to come,” Josman recalled. “It was really very, very impressive.”
In all, three of the six students were able to transfer their virtual reality skills to the park’s street crossings.
Virtual Reality has proved effective at treating children with autism. It can help them learn social cues, fine-tune motor skills, or experiment with real-world lessons like waiting until it’s safe to cross the street. One reason behind the treatment’s efficacy could be that children with autism interact well with technology, specifically virtual reality.