“Virtual reality is transforming autism studies,” writes Spectrum. The technology creates more opportunities to understand the complexities of the disorder and can give neurotypical people a glimpse of what their neurodiverse loved ones see every day. Crucially, it can give autistic people a chance to explain and explore their world on their own terms.
As Forbes magazine explains, children, parents, teachers, counselors, and therapists are embracing virtual reality technology to help individuals better communicate and connect with other people and the world around them. The technology can also help non-autistic people better understand the reality of living with autism, and it might clear up some misconceptions about the condition.
So bright is the future of autism and virtual reality, Forbes says, that “there is no other medium that comes as close to putting you in the shoes” of someone who has autism.
Simulation of Real-World Situations
In the 1990s, VR developers and autism researchers first started to work together, using the technology to create virtual environments that simulated real-world situations that would normally be stressful for autistic people. It was done in the hope that this kind of exposure would help prepare people for what to expect.
As an example, the Center for BrainHealth and the Child Study Center at Yale University’s School of Medicine used virtual reality to help young adults with autism spectrum disorder learn how they could live on their own and be responsible for their own finances. Graduates of the program were taught how to sit through a job interview, handle a problem with their neighbor, and even go on a date.
Virtual reality technology has been used to help autistic children prepare for speaking to another person or a group of people. The simulation employed avatars that faded away if the person didn’t make eye contact (which was tracked by the VR headset). This mechanism encouraged children to look around the room and hold eye contact with the avatars instead of looking straight ahead or downward.
Autistic children participating in the simulation “really responded” to shifting their attention to keep the avatars on the screen, according to a psychologist at UCD who also developed the program. This translated into a better ability to maintain eye contact in real life.
How VR Can Prepare Help People With Phobias
Autistic children often struggle with phobias, and this is another area where VR can be helpful. The phobias are typically connected with the symptoms of autism: fear of public places, fear of being embarrassed, and fear of strangers. Cognitive behavioral therapy is normally used to help clients channel their fears into more positive behavior, but the visualization and imagination of virtual reality can bridge a significant gap in the therapy.
Specialists at Newcastle University created the Blue Room, an immersive therapy experience that is specifically designed to address phobias in autistic children. Helping children practice social skills in a controlled setting turned out to be an effective tool to control the anxiety that children and their parents experience when confronted by unpredictable and uncontrollable situations that can trigger the autism-related phobias.
Two weeks after the Blue Room treatment ended, 25% of the 32 children who used it reported an alleviation of their experiences of phobia. After six months, it was 38%. Ultimately, the virtual reality component allowed the children to better confront their phobias and learn to manage their response.
A 2019 study published in the Autism in Adulthood journal reached similar conclusions, with researchers writing that a combination of VR-augmented exposure therapy and CBT “may be an effective treatment for autistic adults with phobias.”
Raising Awareness & Exploring Neurodiversity
As much as virtual reality is used to create a simulation where an autistic person can practice their social skills or manage their anxiety, more people are using the technology to share their own experiences of living with autism. This works to both raise awareness of the condition and to explore the diversity of the autistic life that advocates want to celebrate.
An example of a creation by the Blue Room is a VR game called Beholder. It was developed by Matt Clark, who has a 15-year-old son with severe autism. Matt created Beholder so he could understand how his nonverbal son sees the world. He told Forbes that he didn’t want to focus on the negative aspects of autism, but he wanted to better appreciate “some of the fascinating aspects of the neurodivergent perception.”
A similar enterprise was done in 2016 by a creative agency that produced an immersive experience for the United Kingdom’s National Autistic Society, showing the effects of isolation and overstimulation an autistic child might experience at a shopping mall.
The BBC’s corporate neurodiversity program tested its own VR simulation of autism, using flashing lights, shimmering patterns, and an audio track featuring heartbeats and panicked breathing to better educate neurotypical people about what their autistic loved ones and co-workers experience on a daily basis. The director of the project, who developed it with an autistic colleague, explained that family members of people with autism noted that they felt, for the first time, what their autistic relatives experienced. “It brings it to life,” the director said, making the whole process much more real and emotional than ever before.
This kind of experience leads to increased understanding of autistic individuals, helping to reduce stigma associated with the disorder. When neurotypical people better understand the autistic experience, they are more likely to engage in relationships with autistic individuals.
Purpose & Direction
Speaking to Science magazine, a research professor at the University of Southern California and a pioneer in applying virtual reality technology in psychiatry pointed out that the perceptual experience offered by VR has never been an option before.
Researchers hope that virtual reality simulations can help autistic children feel safer in unfamiliar environments. The University of the West of England in Bristol conducted a VR tour of a local science museum for 11 autistic children a few days before they went to the actual museum. The leader of the research team told Spectrum that the students said they felt “less anxious, less stressed, more prepared for that space.” The teachers also noted that during the tour of the real museum, the students felt an improved sense of “purpose and direction” in where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do.
Social Isolation & Neurotypical Normativity
The future of autism and virtual reality is not without controversy because the current generation of VR tech cannot (yet) capture and present the social isolation that people with autism experience. Additionally, there is a concern that while many neurotypical people have responded positively and appropriately to what they have learned from this technology, others may react with pity and condescension toward autistic individuals.
Some in the autism advocacy communities have expressed their own ambivalence about whether a simulation can truly replicate all the nuances of the autistic experience. The harshest criticism is that these simulations are about appealing to neurotypical people and not advocating for autistic individuals on their own terms.
Challenges for the Future With Virtual Reality
The future of autism and virtual reality will likely look at how the technology can capture the nuances and dynamics of social interactions since current versions of the technology primarily rely on noninteractive tasks.
Another challenge for the future is how virtual reality can be used as a truly therapeutic or research tool for autism. In all the work that has been done thus far, the sample sizes have been quite small and there have been no control groups. While initial signs have been positive, there is not yet any indication that the VR experiments would pass clinical muster for wider applications.
Barriers include cost — not just for the equipment, but for the programmers, developers, and animators who would have to create the simulations and its contents. Current virtual reality scenarios remain very simplified, with only moderate amounts of the realism necessary to fully simulate an authentic autistic experience.
Lastly, concerns still remain about making the simulation experience more about the autistic individuals and less about the neurotypical experience. As the Autism journal writes, “approaches to studying autism are framed by neurotypical definitions.” One developer explained that there is a tendency to use VR that is “about autism and autistic groups” and not “with autism and autistic groups.” First-person virtual reality simulations can address that, but the technical and research limitations mean that the technology is not there yet.
There is the hope that autistic people, who might feel invisible because neurotypical people can’t understand their perspectives, will use virtual reality to bridge the gulf between themselves and the dominant neurotypical world they see around them. With advancements in the field continually happening, it’s likely that this will be a reality in the future.
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Virtual Reality Could Show Others What Autism Feels Like—and Lead to Potential Treatments. (October 2018). Science.
Social Isolation of Young Adults With Autism Spectrum Disorder Examined. (May 2013). Science Daily.
Virtual Reality Might Be the Next Big Thing for Mental Health. (June 2019). Scientific American.
How Others Make Me and My Son With Autism Feel Invisible. (March 2018). The Mighty.
Virtual Reality Social Cognition Training for Young Adults With High-Functioning Autism. (May 2012). Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
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Virtual Reality Job Interview Training in Adults With Autism Spectrum Disorder. (May 2014). Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
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