UW professors use innovative ways to help autistic children

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Published on The Badger Herald on Jan 22, 2016

University of Wisconsin researchers are developing new tactics to help individuals with autism including video game usage for balance training.

One in 68 children has autism, and the number is increasing, Leann Smith, senior scientist at the Waisman Center, said. Research, however, has lacked elements that engaged participants.

Using video games to make research more fun

Brittany Travers, occupational therapy program assistant professor in UW’s Department of Kinesiology, is focusing her current research on using video games to help autistic children develop better motor skills.

Travers said a previous research study, which found that a neural pathway in the brain stem is correlated with both the social symptoms and motor impairments of autism, triggered her research on using video games to help autistic children. She said the study identified a relationship between the two symptoms within one area of the brain.

“So the next question for me is, is there any way to target that area of brain behaviorally?” Travers said. “One of the ways in typically developing individuals when they found a target for brain area is through balance training.”

Considering previous research on balance training in autistic individuals is both dangerous and dull, Travers decided to use video games to make the research process more fun. Her innovation received great feedback from participants, Travers said, because people with autism are more likely to play video games in their free time.

Travers works with research participants closely, three times every week for a six-week period, to observe their progress. She is now in the stage of experimenting and data collecting.

“We’re hoping to be able to analyze this data and later put it in publication, to show whether or not the video game training is really having an improvement not only on balance ability, but also other core features of autism,” Travers said.

Helping with the transition to adulthood

Smith is studying the difficult transition from high school to adulthood for autistic individuals.

Smith’s research provides support and education to parents because family involvement plays a key role in the healthy development of autistic children, Smith said. It also includes working alongside high schoolers in their classrooms to improve their social skills.

“We hope to improve their ability to cope with stress, and make connections with other people in their lives, so they can achieve their goals, whether that be continuing on to do well in school, or going on and getting jobs,” Smith said.

Travers said her research is inline with the mission of the Waisman Center, which is studying developmental disorders across the lifespan of individuals, and ultimately improving their quality of life.

“I think most people now know someone or have a family member, have some connections with someone with autism,” Smith said. “So when we think about trying to support families and communities, we’re always going to be connected with someone with autism, so we want to help and improve their quality of life.”

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