How virtual reality therapy is being used for autism
Autism is a spectrum disorder that affects one percent of the population, most often characterized as having difficulty interacting socially with others. Virtual reality therapy for autism is being used as a way to help people with autism improve their social skills and other areas of development.
What is autism?
Autism is a developmental disability that has a wide variation in severity and symptoms. It occurs in about one percent of the population and affects children and adults alike. Some of the characteristics common to those on the autism spectrum include difficulty with sensory input, such as being sensitive to light or sound or having synesthesia, having a different way of learning, “narrow but deep” focus on a certain subject, atypical movements such as rocking or flapping, or difficulty with motor skills, need for routine, difficulty with language nuances, and social interaction.
While many people with autism live happy lives, therapies do exist to make day-to-day life easier for autistic people. Using physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy, teaches helpful skills to get along in modern society. Virtual reality therapy is another way to help teach social skills and practical life-skills such as crossing the street.
What is virtual reality therapy?
Virtual Reality Therapy (VRT) is the use of virtual reality (VR) technology in the treatment of pain management, as well as issues like anxiety, depression, paranoia and autism. By using VR, users are dropped into a virtual environment and fully engrossed in the experience. Most VR experiences involved a head-mounted display, headphones for sound or music, often with noise-cancelling properties, a rumble pad, and joystick or other navigational tool to move through the virtual landscape.
Head-tracking systems help to surround the user in the virtual world and make the experience truly immersive. By including stimuli that engage the visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory systems, VR is distinctly different from watching movies or TV, or even playing 2D games whether handheld or on a console. While it was originally developed for entertainment, new applications for virtual reality are being discovered all the time.
Using virtual reality therapy to teach social skills
Researchers at the University of Texas wanted to test to see if social training using Virtual Reality Social Cognition Training (VR-SCT) would be helpful for those on the autism spectrum. The program includes scenarios focused making new friends, dealing with bullies, and handling a gaming partner who cheats. The study included ten sessions and was focused on finding out if VR helped with social cognition, emotion recognition, and social attribution.
30 participants with a primary diagnosis of Asperger’s or autism between the ages of 7 and 16 were asked to play the game Second Life during their sessions with virtual locations ranging from a classroom to a local coffee shop. The clinician was able to enter the game to interact with the participant as another virtual avatar to help facilitate different social scenarios.
The researchers found that by using virtual environments, participants in the study increased their abilities in affect recognition, analogical reasoning, and the ability to see things from another person’s perspective. The researchers also found that those participants who also reported diagnoses of ADHD saw the same gains in social skills, which is an important result as autism and attention disorders can often go hand in hand.
While the sample size was small, researchers were able to show that virtual reality therapy can be used as a tool to help improve the social skills of those on the autism spectrum.
Virtual reality therapy for safety skills
Virtual reality is useful in part because it can be designed to be predictable and can be modified as the user wishes. Autistic people feel more comfortable when things are consistent and they know what’s coming next, something that is easy to create with virtual reality.
Researchers at the University in Haifa in Israel have created a virtual street that lessens distractions and helps make transferring learned skills to the real world easier. By being able to practice safety skills in crossing a street in a familiar environment, children in this research study were able to transfer these skills onto the actual streets.
The virtual reality environment included a divided roadway leading to a Toys”R”Us store and the program tracked how often players looked both ways before crossing the street, whether they were paying attention to oncoming traffic, and how many accidents they had. Using this game, participants went from having an average score of 2.66 to 8.91 (with the highest score being 9) and reduced the group’s accident number from 22 to 0.
When introduced to a real roadway, half of the participants were able to bring the skills they had learned from the game to the real world. Naomi Josman, one of the creators of the virtual environment, says that her team is now working on upgrading the software to make it more customizable, and is adding new skill levels with differences in the speed and number of cars as well as different locations.
Increasing empathy and understanding
Virtual reality has also made it possible for those without autism to see how things like sensory overload can feel. In a virtual reality video made by the National Autistic Society (NAS) in the UK, viewers can see how even a few minutes at the mall can quickly become too much for an autistic child.
The NAS says that when an overload like this happens in a public place, the autistic person and their family are subject to the stares and judging looks of those around them who don’t understand. As the child says in the video, “I’m not naughty, I’m autistic. And I just get too much information.”
While virtual reality can help those with autism gain social skills and help them learn to do tasks they might otherwise struggle with, it can also help others take a moment to gain empathy and understanding of what it is like to have autism.
Please visit our Find A Therapist page for information on treatment centres offering virtual reality therapy for autism.