Autistic kids given virtual reality boost

Local | Stella Wong 28 Jun 2017

A training program developed by the City University of Hong Kong using virtual reality can help autistic children enhance their skills, a study of 125 students from 17 schools found.

The children, aged between six and 12 who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, received 28 sessions of the VR-based social adaptive and emotional training from January 2015 to September 2016 at the university's Shaw Run Run Creative Media Centre.

Wearing 3D glasses, the children had to stand in an area surrounded by three white walls, on to which 3D virtual scenarios, including going to school, classroom, library and tuck shop, were projected. Trainers beside them would guide them to solve difficulties encountered, such as somebody jumping the queue in the library.

If students got emotional, the trainers would switch the program to the "calming mode" and help them face their emotions, and suggest solutions to handle problems.

The study found the assessment scores of students in the program and those of the control groups were significantly different in terms of emotion expression and social interaction. Participants were more able to express their emotions appropriately, initiate social contact and sustain conversations.

A mother, surnamed Ting, whose Primary Four son participated, said she was glad to see her son's improve after the training. "After the training, he can manage his emotions in a better way and gets angry less often," she said.

The vice principal of the boy's school, surnamed Chiu, said the program is "more effective" than training programs using two- dimensional graphics and texts.

"Students are more interested in the virtual reality technology and they really look forward to the training sessions," said Chiu, who had six students take part in the study.

Professor Ip Horace Ho-shing, project investigator, said the training helps children with autism to respond appropriately and adapt to a range of social environments after facing them repeatedly in a safe place.

Ip said researchers hope to increase the quota to 200 students in the next stage of the program, which he expects to be launched at the end of this year.

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