Researchers are helping neurologically impaired children overcome their mobility challenges and explore their environments by providing them with specially designed toy cars according to a National Science Foundation (NSF) newsletter article.
The NSF team outfitted low tech ride on cars with high tech mechanisms inspired by power wheelchairs and robotic technologies. Children’s use of the cars shortened developmental delays and reduced other disability-related problems associated with lack of age typical motor skill development.
Children with down syndrome, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, or autism often suffer limited mobility from birth. Power wheelchairs may become available to them when they reach the age of four or give but until then many children can be nearly immobile which can result in adverse effects on brain development.
In 2007, professors at the University of Delaware developed a robotic car that incorporated a joystick and smart technology and also has software to detect obstacles and help the user learn to navigate around them. Users showed an increase in cognitive language and motor skills. In 2010, the prototype was converted into a dual power chair and walker.
At first, high end robotic cars were available to only a few children at the university’s Early Learning Center while parents of other special needs children anxiously awaited the technology.
In response to the parent’s interest, the team transferred some of the electrical and mechanical modifications to a low tech commercially available race car. Even with the less sophisticated cars, children with special needs still enjoyed some developmental benefits from enhanced mobility.
The researchers plan to introduce a prototype in 2020 that will feature smart technology and a more efficient body structure. They are also testing a dynamic harness to allow children to experience safe walking and falling.