How Virtual Reality is Helping People with Autism

May 15, 2019

Virtual Reality is Helping People with Autism

Though it’s only gained attention recently, virtual reality-based therapy for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other sensory processing disorders isn’t exactly new. As early as 1996, researchers like Barbara Strickland theorized that virtual reality could help autistic people develop social awareness skills. Preliminary studies in the 90s were promising, but at the time, virtual reality was expensive and headsets were often bulky and uncomfortable—sometimes a serious issue for people with sensory disorders. At the time, these issues prevented VR therapies from becoming a viable, widespread option for helping people with ASD. 

Twenty years later, virtual reality technology is cheap and accessible, and virtual reality headsets are lighter and more comfortable. With these barriers out of the way, researchers are studying virtual reality’s potential as a treatment tool for autism more than ever before. Of course, the scientific world moves slowly, and it will be years or even decades before we have large-sample, long-term studies that let us track the long-term efficacy of VR-based therapies and trainings for autistic people. 

But most research is promising, and virtual reality is already being used as a tool to help improve the lives of people with autism.  New studies suggest that VR could have use for everything from helping autistic children overcome phobias to helping autistic adults develop interview skills and land jobs. 

A collaborative study from the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas and the Child Study Center at Yale University examined how virtual reality training affected the brains of study participants. Prior to the collaboration, brain health had already performed preliminary studies on Virtual Reality-Social Cognition Training (VR-SCT). They developed VR scenarios to help high-functioning autistic people develop social skills like “emotional recognition” and “the ability to understand and respond to what others are thinking.” BrainHealth found as early as 2012 that “the virtual reality platform is a promising tool for improving social skills, cognition, and functioning in autism.” 

Carly McCuller, a UT Dallas student who went through BrainHealth’s virtual reality program credits the training with helping her learn interview skills and become a teacher and, perhaps even more importantly, helping her find “real friends, long-lasting friends” for the first time in her life. 

And it turns out that there’s scientific explanation for McCuller’s experience. Using fMRIs and EEGs, BrainHealth and Yale’s 2018 study confirmed that VR-SCT does indeed illicit measurable changes in the brains of people with high-functioning autism. Even though the virtual reality training was non-immersive (i.e. scenarios were displayed on a computer screen instead of through a virtual reality headset), the training helped patients pay relatively more attention to social stimuli and relatively less attention to non-social stimuli. Researchers theorize that “VR-SCT had made social events more predictable after treatment,” perhaps helping people with autism become less overwhelmed by extraneous stimuli in social situations and more able to focus on reading and responding to social cues. 

VR helping people with autism

Another recent study tested whether autistic people would be comfortable using virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift. The heavy, uncomfortable VR headsets of the 90s might have been counterproductive to helping anyone with a sensory processing disorder, but lead researcher Dr. Nigel Newbutt was hopeful that today’s lighter headsets would be received more positively. 

Most study participants reported that, not only would they be willing to use the headsets again, they actually found the experience enjoyable. While this finding may seem inconsequential, it’s actually huge for VR’s potential to help people with ASD. Headsets allow for more immersive, realistic experiences, possibly increasing the efficacy of trainings like those developed by BrainHealth. 

The results of virtual reality trainings are promising, but, as Natalie Catren, a contributor to the U.K.’s Independent, cautions, “it’s vitally important that VR technology is not seen as a device with which to “cure” autistic individuals.” Researchers, therapists, doctors, teachers, and parents should view VR therapies and trainings as a way to help autistic people achieve their own goals and live more fulfilling lives—not as a way to fix something that’s broken. With 60-90% of autistic adults unemployed or underemployed, widespread use of VR-Social Cognition Training like BrainHealth’s program could provide effective solutions for the very real problems autistic adults face. 

Early studies suggest that autistic children can also benefit from VR programs. Floreo is an immersive VR program for autistic kids age 7 and up designed to help them develop life and social skills. Initially, Floreo focused on helping kids develop joint attention skills. Joint attention, where two people focus on an object together, is often difficult for autistic kids to develop and can hinder social bonding. A pilot study showed that autistic children experienced improvement in joint attention after using the program. Just as importantly, they tolerated the headsets well and enjoyed the experience. 

Since then, Floreo has taken steps to begin more extensive studies and has drastically expanded their content. In addition to joint attention, they now offer modules that help kids learn skills like imitation, gestures, street crossing, mindfulness, and police safety; modules for school social skills and travel safety are in the works. And because programs like Floreo are accessible and easy to use, they hold real potential as classroom tools for special education and inclusion teachers. 

Virtual reality offers one more important benefit to autistic people: increased understanding and empathy from neurotypical people. While most research is focused on using VR to help autistic people improve social awareness or cope with sensory issues, organizations like Britain’s National Autistic Society have developed first-person videos that simulate sensory overload. Especially when viewed through a VR headset, these videos help neurotypical people experience the anxiety and panic caused by sensory overload and understand how coping mechanisms like healthy stimming can help. 

Even with the rapid development of virtual reality for autism in the last few years, we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of VR’s potential for helping people with ASD. As more programs and trainings are developed and as larger studies are performed, we’re likely to see VR therapies appear more and more in schools, doctor and clinician offices, and private homes. And if current results are any indication, everyone— both neurotypical and neuroatypical— will benefit.


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