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Interactive and multi-sensory technologies now transform an ordinary classroom into a “Magic Room” where children with attention deficit disorder, autism, Down Syndrome and other neuro-developmental problems can play and learn in what researchers are calling a new kind of smart space.

After seven years of collaborating with therapeutic schools and institutions in Italy, scientists from Politecnico di Milano developed the Magic Room for two therapeutic centers in Milan and Rome. Afterward, they conducted a four-month exploratory study, involving eight caregivers and nineteen children with mild, moderate, and severe neurodevelopmental disabilities.

The results were impressive.

Observation form (left) and main quantitative results (right) of the exploratory study.

The study showed double and sometimes triple improvement in cognition, communication, relationships, motor skills, and emotional expression. After more study and improvements, the researchers hope to expand the Magic Room to other facilities in Italy and around the world.

This hold great promise to people worldwide with neurodevelopmental conditions, including the one in six U.S. children with a developmental disability.

 

“NDD is an umbrella term comprising a group of disorders—including intellectual disability, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD)—that arise during childhood development and are associated with cognitive, social, and motor deficits, leading to severe impairments in adaptive behavior and basic life skills write Franca Garzotto and Mirko Gelsomini, authors of “Magic Room: A Smart Space for Children with Neurodevelopmental Disorder” in IEEE Pervasive Computing magazine.

What is the Magic Room?

To create the Magic Room, the researchers integrated state-of-the-art audio-visual technology, Microsoft’s XBox 360 Kinect interface, and the Snoezelen multi-sensory environment, which uses lights, soap bubbles, and aromas to help reduce anxiety, engage the user, stimulate reactions, and encourage communication.

Experiences in the Magic Room: (a) inducing a state of relaxation with sea-world projections, (b) Catch the …, (c) Magic Ball, (d) Pass the Light, (e) Shapes, (f) Storytelling.

According to the authors, “The Magic Room is equipped with two projectors, one video camera, one ambient sound system, one Kinect, various smart objects (3D soft geometric shapes and stuffed toys), smart appliances (a bubble maker and an aroma emitter), mobile graspable smart lights, ambient lights, and a Philips Luminous Carpet (made of carpet tiles embedding LED grids to enable the display of words and graphic patterns).”

“The boards inside smart objects integrate pressure sensors, multi-axis accelerometers, a gyroscope, a magnetometer, and various actuators for light, sound, and vibration. The Kinect detects midair gestures, body position, movements, and voice. A joystick enables caregivers to suspend/restart the current stimuli or activate new ones,” they add.

Watch video of the various functions of the Magic Room

What makes the Magic Room different from other smart environments?

Two important differences between the Magic Room and other existing multi-sensory environments are (1) the Magic Room is easy for non-tech caregivers to use, and (2) it is painless to customize unlike “hard-coded” systems that require operations at the programming level.

The Magic Room. (a) Left: 1. smart objects and toys; 2. mobile graspable lights; 3. ambient lights; 4. wall projection area; 5. floor projection area and Luminous Carpet; 6. sound system; 7. PC; 8. Kinect; 9. bubble machine; 10. aroma emitter. Right: MAT interactive tool interface.

Magic Room study shows remarkable results

Surprisingly, no child was afraid to enter the Magic Room. And, although it was different for each child, the time it took for them to relax was shorter than the time it took to adjust to changes in a normal classroom.

Children with mild or moderate impairment played with smart toys from the start. Children with severe impairment did not play with toys, but sat near their caregivers and watched the other kids play. The is significant, especially for kids with autism.

“Two subjects who always moved frantically in the regular classroom progressively learned to control their excitement, wait for their turn, and sit still when requested by caregivers in the Magic Room,” the authors said.

Profiles of the children participating in research.

After receiving feedback from the caregivers, the researchers made some striking observations:

  • Caregivers observed the strongest improvements in the cognitive area. The scores in the last session are almost double the initial ones for group 2 and triple those for group 1.
  • Comparing the first and last sessions, group 1 improved 28 percent in the relational area and 64 percent in communication.
  • A comparison of scores in the first and the last sessions showed an increase of 25 percent for group 1 and 80 percent for group 2.
  • Observed improvements between the first and last sessions were weaker in the motor area than in the other areas for group 1 (20 percent) and group 2 (33 percent). Still, according to the caregivers, most children engaged in more movement in the Magic Room than during regular activities.
  • Some children engaged in motor activities that are complex for them without even noticing they were pushing harder.” For example, a child with biparesis (C3) completed a task that required her to stand upright and then move and walk, and she did so without asking for help.

Challenges in using the Magic Room

The researchers observed several isolated events in which children responded negatively to the Magic Room:

  • One child became overexcited when bubbles were emitted as a reward after he completed a task during the first session; he pushed away the other children to pop as many bubbles as possible and ran frantically about the room until the caregivers grasped him and helped him to reassess and stabilize himself.
  • While waiting for his turn during a Storytelling activity, another child started kicking the Magic Ball and became aggressive toward peers. Therapists noted “the pleasure resulting from the experience may have created excitement and an intensive willingness to play; this can be frustrating and make self-regulation and control more difficult.”
  • In addition, while waiting for their turn, children may feel in competition with peers for the play stage and the therapist’s attention.

Verifying the effectiveness of the Magic Room

The researchers admit that their study has some limitations, mainly due to the lack of control of several variables as well as variability among the subjects.

“Without a control group,” they explain, “we cannot claim that the children’s improvements can be ascribed to the Magic Room as opposed to general growth in each individual’s development or to experiences outside the smart space.”

Future development of Magic Rooms

The next step in the authors’ research agenda is to conduct a more rigorous, year-long empirical study at the second Magic Room in Rome.

“It will involve 60 subjects (split into a control group and an experimental group) and complement descriptive results with clinical tests performed before, during, and after the study to compare the Magic Room’s effects to those of regular interventions,” they say.

 

Research related to children with autism and other disabilities in the Computer Society Digital Library: