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NEWS | May 1, 2012

New virtual reality study and book series help advance educational opportunities for children with autism

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.)

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.

Peter Mundy © UC Regents
Peter Mundy

"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."

Educational Interventions for Students with Autism (Wiley, 2012) is written by nationally acclaimed experts in the field and published in collaboration with the UC Davis MIND Institute and UC Davis School of Education. Co-edited by Mundy and Ann Mastergeorge, who is now with the University of Arizona, it outlines best practices in education for children with autism to meet the practical, real-world classroom needs of teachers, school administrators and parents.

Topics include how autism affects student learning, autism and its impact on schools, a teacher's view of autism and the classroom, working with children who have high-functioning forms of autism in schools and successful community-school partnerships. Mundy contributes a co-written chapter titled "Effects of Autism on Social Learning and Social Attention."

UC Davis Health System Chief Executive Officer Claire Pomeroy, UC Davis School of Education Dean Harold Levine, MIND Institute Director Leonard Abbeduto and the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences supported early research that led to the current grant and facilitated the production of the new book.  

Mundy's work on defining the nature of autism began more than 25 years ago at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute (now the Semel Institute). Before joining UC Davis in 2008, he was professor of psychology at the University of Miami, where he was the founding director of the University of Miami Center for Autism and Related Disabilities and founding co-director of the Marino Autism Research Institute. A standing member of the National Institutes of Health Biobehavioral and Behavioral Science Subcommittee, he has published more than 100 papers on autism, early social development and developmental psychopathology.  

The UC Davis MIND Institute, in Sacramento, Calif., was founded in 1998 as a unique interdisciplinary research center where parents, community leaders, researchers, clinicians and volunteers collaborate to study and treat autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. The institute has major research efforts in autism, Tourette syndrome, fragile X syndrome, chromosome 22q11.2 deletion syndrome and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). More information about the institute, including previous presentations in its Distinguished Lecture Series, is available on the Web at mindinstitute.ucdavis.edu.