Teaching Autistic Children How To Cross The Street Using Virtual Reality

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Dr. Todd Ward


When teaching important daily living and community skills to children with autism, or really anyone for that matter, safety can be of utmost concern.  As a teacher, you may not want to put your learners directly into a potentially dangerous situation to teach them how to be safe.  Pedestrian skills offers a prime example.

Along these lines, a team lead by Dennis Dixon from the Center for Autism and Related Disorders, published a study in Behavior Analysis in Practice, in which they successfully taught pedestrian skills to children with autism using Virtual Reality.

Here’s what they did:

The team worked with three boys.  Joe was a 4 year old boy who could answer yes/no questions and make requests and describe his environment in full sentences.  Kaiden was a 6 year old boy with a similar skillset, though the would request and describe using phrases instead of sentences.  Finally, Bob was 10 years old and also had a diagnoses of ADHD.  Bob would also use phrases to make requests and label his environment.

The team first started with a baseline condition in which they took the kids to their own neighborhoods and asked them at predetermined times “Is it safe to cross?” The same was also done using Virtual Reality probes prior to training.

During training, the team taught the kids how to look left and right, to accurately answer the question “Is there a car moving?”, and to accurately answer the question “Is it safe to cross?”.  Training used a flexible prompt fading procedure due to the dynamic nature of the VR system and videos used.  The flexible procedure also allowed clinicians to tailor their prompts to the unique child in the moment.  Prompts are generally thought of on a spectrum from least to most intrusive.  For example, a verbal prompt like sounding out a word or pointing to something is a much less intrusive type of prompt than a full physical or “hand over hand” prompt.  Verbal praise was also given for correct responses.

During baseline, the kids responded with 0-50% accuracy to the question “Is it safe to cross?”.  Interestingly, none of the skill generalized to the natural street environment after initial VR training.  However, after longer videos and distractors were added to the training (e.g., dogs barking, all three children met generalization criteria in the natural environment (three 100% sessions in a row), after 35 sessions.  Up to four sessions were run in a single day.

One of the major limitations of the study was that actually crossing the street was not taught or measured, only the response to “Is it safe to cross the street?”.  The team suggested more software development is needed in order to train the response virtually.

For more details, please check out the full study here.

Do you think VR training could be useful in your work?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 vie email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D, LBA is a science writer, social philosopher, behavioral systems analyst, and the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which aims to connect behavioral science to the world in an engaging, non-academic way.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  His publications follow a theme of behavioral systems analysis, organizational performance, theory & philosophy, and language & cognition.  He has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward can be reached at [email protected]

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