Autism researcher awarded $1 million grant to apply virtual-reality technology

Published on May 3, 2012 at 8:31 AM · No Comments

UC Davis autism researcher and education specialist Peter Mundy has received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to apply virtual-reality technology to evaluate social attention and its relation to academic achievement among school children with autism. He also is launching Educational Interventions for Students with Autism, a book for elementary and secondary school teachers that shares current research and evidence-based approaches to training. The book is the first in a series on the topic, and Mundy is co-author.

In the U.S., 80 percent of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) go to public schools, and at least 50 percent of them are in general education classes throughout the school day. More than 60 percent have average IQs and are not affected by intellectual disabilities, yet they have the worst graduation rates of any group.

"Schools are not very well equipped to deal with ASDs," said Mundy, who holds the Lisa Capps Endowed Chair in Neurodevelopmental Disorders and Education and is director of educational research at the UC Davis MIND Institute. "Although we've made tremendous progress with ASDs at the preschool level, we haven't focused attention on how to continue to develop optimal development for these kids in elementary and secondary schools. The new research grant and book emphasize the benefits of research and the influence teachers can have on current and future generations of children."

Expanding on a pilot project conducted last year, the study uses virtual-reality technology to track participants' attention to nine avatars representing fellow students. All avatars stay on the screen if the participants regularly turn their heads to look at them, while avatars not getting attention begin to fade away.

It is one of the first-ever longitudinal studies on children with autism in school. The study goals include assessing whether or not social attention is a pivotal factor in both academic achievement and interventions for children with higher-functioning forms of autism. If results are promising, a follow-up study could focus specifically on use of virtual reality as an intervention.

An additional goal is to evaluate the use of social attention as a way of illustrating differences between children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and children with autism, as those symptoms can seem similar in classroom settings.

The new study will involve 120 elementary and secondary school children affected by autism and 80 typically developing children. They will participate in exercises at the Social Attention and Virtual Reality Laboratory at UC Davis, a collaboration of the MIND Institute, School of Education and Center for Mind and Brain that Mundy established in 2009.

"Through this study, we'll obtain new information about what might help these children graduate at higher rates and have better lives, earning more than minimum wage and living independently," said Mundy, who holds appointments as a professor in both the UC Davis School of Education and the School of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. "We need to make the best use of the biggest intervention system we have, which is the K-12 public school system. Children with ASDs spend more time in this system than in any other."

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