UW-Madison research using video games to improve balance attracts media attention

January 31, 2022

The work of a UW-Madison research team including Brittany Travers from the School of Education has recently made headlines.

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Travers is an Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy in the School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology and a Senior Fellow at the Waisman Center at UW-Madison. She is part of a team researching the use of video games to improve balance in adolescents with autism spectrum disorders.

The study, published in the journal Brain Communications, found that balance training using an on-screen game and a balance board helped improve balance in adolescents with autism aged 13 to 17. It also improved their posture and reduced the severity of their autism symptoms.

Speaking to Wisconsin Public Radio recently about the study, Travers noted that balance control seems to peak earlier in children with autism than in others. She said she and her colleagues were interested in finding better interventions that improve children’s motor skills and that they wanted to make balance training fun.

“There are lots of ways to train balance, but we’re really trying to capitalize and gamify some of those balance effects to make it fun and interesting and something that people really want to do, not something that people want to have to do,” Travers said.

In a report for the Capital Times, Travers said the study is unique because it reveals “how motor interventions and intensive motor training can impact people with autism, both in terms of the brain and behavior. “.

Brittany Travers with a study participant during a training session for a video game that helps improve balance in adolescents with autism.
Brittany Travers with a study participant during a training session for a video game that helps improve balance in adolescents with autism. (Photo by Andy Manis)

After six weeks of balance training using the game, participants increased the time they were able to hold a pose on one foot by an average of 36 seconds – “enough time to avoid slipping on ice or getting into a tub or losing your balance,” Travers mentioned.

Additionally, study participants showed improvements in their posture after participating in the training sessions, and parents reported a decrease in the severity of their children’s autistic symptoms.

A takeaway for Travers, she said, is that motor training doesn’t have to be boring or tedious.

“There are good, healthy things we can do for ourselves and for our bodies, but sometimes we need that extra motivation to actually do it,” she told the Capital Times. “One of the big things here is that there can be interventions for people with autism that are motivational and fun.”

Learn more about this important work by reading the full reports from Wisconsin Public Radio and the Capital Times.

John C. Dent