UW-Madison researchers using Tai Chi, video games to improve balance among adolescents with autism

New research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that balance training with video games changed the brain structure of adolescents with autism and helped improve balance, posture and the severity of autism symptoms.

Brittany Travers, professor of occupational therapy at UW-Madison and senior researcher at the Waisman Center, said she and her colleagues are interested in finding ways to better interventions that improve the motor skills of people with autism. She said previous research had shown that balance control plateaued earlier in children with autism than in children without autism. As people’s age balance becomes more of a challenge for everyone, Travers said.

“But the speculation is that autistic individuals may be at higher risk for falls and later in life if these balance issues aren’t addressed,” Travers said.

Travers and her team at UW-Madison developed a video game called Ninja Poses in conjunction with a Nintendo Wii Balance Board. She said study participants visited the lab three times a week for six weeks. A group of teens spent an hour each visit holding various tai chi and yoga poses for as long as possible, which took anywhere from five seconds to four minutes, Travers said.

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A control group of adolescents would spend the same amount of time playing video games while seated.

“There are a lot of ways you can train balance, but we’re really trying to use and play with some of those balance effects to make it fun and interesting and make something that people actually want to do, not something that people have to feel that way,” Travers said.

“And from this work we find that there are some pretty profound brain changes, but they seemed to be quite different in the autism group compared to the non-autism group,” she said.

That was unexpected, she said, and the team plans to explore that difference in future research.

Travers said she and others working on the study had conversations with members of the autism community about what they learned from research with adolescents to help develop interventions for adults living with autism as well.

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