Turns out, a video game can improve balance in kids and youths with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Balance challenges are more common among people with ASD compared to the broader population, said lead author Brittany Travers, and difficulties with balance and postural stability are commonly thought to relate to more severe ASD symptoms and impaired activities in daily living.
"We think this video game-based training could be a unique way to help individuals with ASD who have challenges with their balance address these issues," said Travers, an investigator at UW-Madison's Waisman Center and an assistant professor of kinesiology.
In the University of Wisconsin-Madison study - the largest ever to look at the effects of balance training on individuals with ASD - 29 participants between the ages of 7 and 17 with ASD completed a six-week training program playing a video game developed by the researchers.
By the end of the program, study participants showed significant improvements in not only their in-game poses but also their balance and posture outside of the game environment.
According to Travers, balance improvements outside the video game context are especially important.
Ten out of 11 study participants who completed a post-game questionnaire also said they enjoyed playing the video games.
Travers developed the video game with help from Andrea Mason, professor of kinesiology at UW-Madison, Leigh Ann Mrotek, professor of kinesiology at UW-Oshkosh and Anthony Ellertson, program director of gaming and interactive technology at Boise State University.
The gaming system uses a Microsoft Kinect camera and a Nintendo Wii balance board connected to software developed on a Windows platform using Adobe Air.
The study also explored individual differences that might predict who would benefit most from this type of video game-based balance training.
For example, the study showed that participants with some characteristics, such as ritualistic behaviors (like the need to follow a set routine around mealtimes or bedtime) did not benefit as much from the video game as those without these behaviors.
On the other hand, some characteristics, such as body mass index or IQ, did not influence whether a participant benefited from balance training.
Researchers are working to make the game more accessible to different individuals within the autism spectrum. "We already have some features that help -- the game has very little verbal instruction, which should make it more accessible to individuals who are minimally verbal," noted Travers. "Ultimately, we would like to move this video game-based training outside the lab."
The study is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.