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UniSA develops VR program to help children with learning disabilities

Learning to become independent is a crucial developmental milestone for all children, but for children with an intellectual disability, mastering everyday activities can be an uphill battle. A new virtual reality (VR) program, called Now, was developed by the University of South Australia to help children overcome some of these difficulties, enabling them to build and practise essential life skills in a safe and controlled environment.

It’s an innovative use of virtual reality platforms that could help thousands of Australian children. In Australia, around one in 22 children has an intellectual disability, representing 4.5 per cent of the Australian population.

Funded by the Channel 7 Children’s Research Foundation, the VR program aims to build capacity and self-confidence around life skills in children with an intellectual disability, enabling them to become more confident and self-sufficient.

Project lead and Early Career Researcher, UniSA’s Stefan Michalski, says the VR program hopes to provide a more effective teaching platform for children with intellectual disabilities to practice key skills.

Whether it’s getting dressed, learning how to cook, or simply sorting the daily trash, routine skills are an essential part of everyday life, Michalski stated. However, for children with an intellectual disability, these tasks can be challenging, so finding ways for them to practice and become more independent is key.

The virtual reality program will let a child practice a range of life skills in a safe and controlled environment so that they gain familiarity with the task and can build their capabilities to undertake it.

The beauty of VR is that it can be modified to complement an individual’s learning style. Plus, it easily enables repeat scenarios so a child can practice a task until they are comfortable with their abilities. Importantly, being able to practice in an online space means that children can safely experience and practice key skills without danger, which makes it much easier to teach higher-risk activities such as working with hot surfaces in a kitchen.

The UniSA project will test the VR training among children aged between 12 and 17, assessing the validity and effectiveness VR as compared with traditional rote learning models.

Michalski says the research hopes to provide new and innovative solutions for children with intellectual disabilities. Mastering life skills undoubtedly builds confidence and self-esteem and can help a child make appropriate decisions in social, vocational and personal scenarios, he noted.

Life is a learning process. And while learning skills via a virtual environment is a novel approach, it’s one that the team feels will make a big difference to the many children that need extra support.

UniSA’s full project team includes Stefan Michalski, Dr Tobias Loetscher, Associate Professor Caroline Ellison, Professor Mark Billinghurst, Dr Ancret Szpak, and Dr Gun Lee.

Channel 7 Children’s Research Foundation (CRF) fosters the advancement of Early Career Researchers in South Australia; Stefan Michalski is one of three Early Career Researchers who successfully received a 2021 Channel 7 CRF grant. The Channel 7 Children’s Research Foundation grants around $1.5 million a year to support quality research within the universities, research institutes, health services and other organisations of South Australia.

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