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Health Beat: Virtual reality treatment for autism

By Melanie Falcon, Anchor / Reporter, @Melanie_Falcon, MFalcon@wfmz.com
Published On: Jul 30 2013 04:00:00 PM CDT

Doctors say one in every 88 children has some form of autism.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -

About one in 88 children suffers with autism, and more than a half-million people have autism or some form of the disorder. These people have difficulty interacting with others and expressing emotion. Now, a new virtual reality program could help.

Barry Thomas loves playing on the computer, but Thomas has autism and has trouble with social interaction.

"Barry still doesn’t really enjoy eye contact. He’s still not very comfortable," said Barry’s mother, Annie Thomas.

Autism impacts an area of the brain responsible for social interaction and communication skills, making it difficult to relate to others.

"They cannot recognize the facial expressions of other people," said Nilanjan Sarkar, a professor at Vanderbilt University.

Researchers at Vanderbilt are developing a virtual reality computer program they hope will help.

"They showed us a face and situation and I basically had to guess the emotion," Thomas said.

Doctors can create characters that show certain emotions and situations and then monitor where the patient is having difficulty with recognizing that emotional expression.

"We want to measure the child’s reaction to these things, how do you measure through child’s ideas, and their body’s signals; physiological signals," Sarkar explained.

The hope is to help children and adults with autism learn emotion by improving eye contact and social engagement.

Thomas's social interaction is improving, which will help him focus on his dream of being a computer programmer.

You can go online for more information about participating in the study.

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