Israel's Calma uses virtual reality to treat autism

Calma Photo: HIT

The system was developed by students at the Holon Institute of Technology.

Several months ago, the Ministry of Labor, Welfare, and Social Services published figures showing that the number of people in Israel diagnosed with autism had tripled in a decade, and amounted to one in every 187 children. This figure matches a study published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that the proportion of children diagnosed with autism was one in 150 in 2000 and one in 68 in 2012.

There is no unequivocal conclusion about the increase in the dimensions of the problem. Researchers believe that the cause is a combination of better diagnosis and a change in criteria. In the bottom line, there is no effective drug for autism, and the agencies dealing with the problem are trying to help people with autism and their families deal with the challenge.

The Faculty of Instructional Technologies at the Holon Institute of Technology (HIT) is one of the institutions taking part in the effort. Dr. Dan Kohen-Vacs, a senior researcher in the faculty in computer science, who is responsible for the technological professions, told "Globes," "In the third year of their studies, our students are taking upon themselves a challenge - to come to grips with a real problem that exists in the field."

One of the systems developed at HIT, Calma, is designed to use virtual reality in order to deal with problems of sensory regulation. "Our consumer is state religious school Dekalim in Jerusalem, which handles difficult cases," Kohen-Vacs says. "Children on the autistic scale study at the school. One of the things that these children have difficulty in handling is what is called sensory regulation. They find it difficult to move between different surrounding conditions. If they move from a very quiet environment to a noisy one, or vice-versa, it puts them in a difficult state.

"One of the common treatment methods today is called 'white room.' These children are put into a room without stimulation, and various objects can then be gradually introduced. The use of such a room has several consequences. A physical space is necessary, and that costs money. Our idea is to create an environment of trust based on the use of virtual reality glasses. We have designed an underwater environment. I can add or remove audio and visual stimuli, for example fish, coral, bubbles, and divers. The therapist can also augment or lower the background music that the children hear."

The Calma system can help children suffering from hyper-arousal, which causes them to be easily distracted. "In such cases, you can create an environment for them with few stimuli. That helps them to be balanced and calm." In cases of children showing indifference or under-arousal, more stimuli can be added. "The child wears glasses, and a therapist with a monitor sits next to him. The therapist can see what the child sees, and add or subtract elements - divers, animation, and so on." The initial version of the system was developed by students Avishai Brina and Joval Lienhardt, while students Guy Dvir and Shahar Leshem are now working on an improved version.

"Globes": How long does this treatment take?

Kohen-Vacs: "It's important for me to emphasize that I'm not an occupational therapist. I'm responsible for the technological aspects of the project, together with Oren Ben-Aharon, my faculty colleague responsible for the user interface aspects. We are cooperating with Amit Bar Tov from the Dekalim school, who is regarded as an authority on therapy. The feedback we're getting from the field is that there is no one format for therapy. The profile is adjusted personally to each patient. In principle, it takes several minutes. After a few minutes, the helmet feels heavy, and we of course don't want to make the children feel uncomfortable. What we do want is for the children to remember the treatment as a positive experience, so that they will return and try it again."

Kohen-Vacs says that the Calma system was launched a year ago, and that HIT is considering commercialization of the system and offering it to additional patients.

Do you know of any similar products anywhere in the world?

"There are all sorts of systems in the world that use virtual reality in treatment. We're not the only ones considering this. Nevertheless, the user experience in our system has all sorts of very special aspects. I call it 'functional innovation' - how you take the technology that everyone knows and exploit its full potential."

Do you believe that the children will also be able to use the kit in their leisure time?

"I don't rule it out. The kit is very comfortable and suitable for this. It is based on smartphones, such as Samsung 7 and iPhone 6, and the visor is also inexpensive."

How much effect does treatment with the Calma kit have in the long term?

"It is very early to jump to conclusions, because we still don't have enough hours of operation among widespread populations. I can say that when the kit is operated, it shows good results in the desirable direction. The effect that we're seeing does not disappear when the helmet is taken off. Our aim is to build a system that will help children reach an emotional balance in their daily life."

Amit Bar-Tov, an occupational therapist at the Dekalim school, adds, "Calma's pilot shows that it has potential as a therapeutic tool. We saw great enthusiasm among the students for coming for emotional regulation and sensory regulation, an improvement in learning capabilities, and a better connection with the enviornment."

Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - - on September 5, 2017

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2017

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Calma Photo: HIT
Calma Photo: HIT
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