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NEWS | September 3, 2013

Virtual reality and social training for autism study seeks participants

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.)

Using a virtual‐reality game, UC Davis researchers have begun to examine how children with high‐functioning autism learn in classroom settings, where social deficits can form obstacles to the engagement with teachers and classmates necessary for academic success. The study will examine their virtual classroom behavior and attention and compare it with that of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and those with typical development.

Peter Mundy © UC Regents Peter Mundy © UC Regents

The researchers are seeking additional participants between the ages of 8 and 15 who are diagnosed with high‐functioning autism. Enrollees will participate in a study that examines public speaking and social attention, as well as math and reading academic development. Each participant will participate in two three‐hour‐long sessions that include academic assessments and computer games that measure public speaking, collaborating with people, and also thinking about people.

This research tries to answer the question of how social attention impairment in children with high‐functioning autism may affect their social learning in the classroom. Social attention encompasses three related problem domains — joint attention, social orienting and attention to faces, said Peter Mundy, professor and Lisa Capps Chair for Neurodevelopmental Disorders and Education in the UC Davis School of Education and in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in the School of Medicine.

“To engage effectively in social learning within a classroom, children must be motivated and readily able to attend to other people to share and receive meaningful information,” said Mundy, who also is the director for educational research at the UC Davis MIND Institute. “The complex social and cognitive context of classroom settings, in which social attention must be regulated in interaction with multiple social partners, makes social learning exceptionally complicated for school‐aged children with autism.”

The study setting is the Social Attention Virtual Reality Laboratory, a collaboration of the MIND Institute, School of Education, and the Center for Mind and Brain, established in 2009. Two hundred children, grades three through 10 ultimately will participate in the study, along with their parents and teachers. The researchers are seeking 80 participants with high‐functioning autism. They already have recruited 40 participants with ADHD and 40 typically developing children.

In the virtual‐reality classroom game students are asked attend to nine avatars, each of which represent fellow students in a virtual classroom. Students are asked to respond to simple questions about themselves, such as “Can you tell us the names of the people in your family?” while trying to remember to look at all of the avatars in the classroom. Avatars that don’t receive any attention begin to fade away to remind students to look at them. In addition to the computerized virtual‐reality tasks, students also will be asked to complete pen‐and‐paper problem‐solving activities that measure academic development.

To participate, the students and their parents will visit the virtual reality laboratory in Davis, Calif. Their teachers also will be asked to provide data on student performance via an online survey. Gift card compensation will be provided to students and families for each visit attended, and families may request an academic achievement report at the conclusion of participation. For further information about participating in the study, please contact savlucd@gmail.com or 530‐297‐4430.

The study is funded by a $1.5 million grant from the federal Institute for Educational Science. Study collaborators include Marjorie Solomon, associate professor and Julie Schweitzer, professor, both of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and of the UC Davis MIND Institute.

At the UC Davis MIND Institute, world-renowned scientists engage in collaborative, interdisciplinary research to find the causes of and develop treatments and cures for autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), fragile X syndrome, 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, Down syndrome and other neurodevelopmental disorders. For more information, visit mindinstitute.ucdavis.edu