The Future of Autism & Virtual Reality (What to Expect) - Here On The Spectrum

As we explore the future of what’s to come, it’s important to consider how virtual reality will potentially be a major catalyst for change in fields such as education and job training. While there are still barriers that need to be overcome, researchers have found significant results with autism treatment methods through VR games.

The future of autism is unknown, but there are many things to look forward to. One of the most exciting aspects of virtual reality is that it can be used in therapy for children with autism. This article discusses what to expect from the future of autistic children and how virtual reality can help them.

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“Virtual reality is revolutionizing autism research,” says Spectrum. The technology expands our understanding of the disorder’s intricacies and allows neurotypical folks to view what their neurodiverse loved ones perceive on a daily basis. It may, most importantly, allow autistic persons to describe and explore their environment on their own terms.

According to Forbes magazine, virtual reality technology is being embraced by children, parents, teachers, counselors, and therapists to help people better interact and connect with each other and the world around them. Non-autistic individuals may also benefit from the technology since it can help them better grasp what it’s like to live with autism and dispel some common misunderstandings about the illness.

According to Forbes, autism and virtual reality have such a bright future that “no other medium comes close to putting you in the shoes” of someone with autism.

Situations in the Real World are Simulated

VR developers and autism researchers originally collaborated in the 1990s, utilizing the technology to build virtual worlds that replicated real-world scenarios that are distressing for autistic individuals. It was done in the hopes that exposing people to this level of information would help them prepare for what was to come.

Virtual reality was employed by the Center for BrainHealth and the Child Study Center at Yale University’s School of Medicine to assist young people with autism spectrum disorder learn how to live independently and manage their finances. Graduates of the program learned how to go through a job interview, deal with a neighbor’s issue, and even go on a date.

Virtual reality technology has been utilized to assist autistic youngsters in preparing to talk with another person or group of people. The avatars in the simulation faded away if the individual didn’t establish eye contact (which was tracked by the VR headset). Instead of staring straight ahead or downward, this mechanism encouraged youngsters to look about the room and maintain eye contact with the avatars.

According to a psychologist at UCD who helped designed the application, autistic youngsters who participated in the simulation “truly reacted” to moving their focus to keep the avatars on the screen. In real life, this translated to a superior ability to sustain eye contact.

How Virtual Reality Can Assist People With Phobias

Autistic children also suffer from phobias, which is another area where virtual reality might assist. The following phobias are often associated with autistic symptoms: fear of public settings, fear of embarrassment, and fear of strangers. Clients often get cognitive behavioral therapy to help them channel their concerns into more positive behavior, but virtual reality’s vision and imagination may assist bridge a large gap in the treatment.

The Blue Room was built by experts at Newcastle University as an immersive treatment experience particularly tailored to alleviate anxieties in autistic youngsters. When children and their parents are presented with unexpected and uncontrolled events that might trigger autism-related phobias, helping them practice social skills in a controlled context has shown to be a helpful technique for controlling anxiety.

Two weeks after the Blue Room therapy finished, 25% of the 32 youngsters who had received it reported a reduction in their phobia symptoms. It was 38 percent after six months. Finally, the virtual reality component enabled the kids to better address their fears and learn to control their reactions.

Researchers concluded in a 2019 study published in the Autism in Adulthood journal that a combination of VR-augmented exposure therapy and CBT “may be an effective treatment for autistic adults with phobias.”

Raising Awareness & Exploring Neurodiversity

Virtual reality is increasingly being used to share personal experiences of living with autism, as well as to build a simulation where an autistic person may practice social skills or control anxiety. This serves to promote awareness of the disease as well as to investigate the variety of autistic living that activists want to highlight.

A VR game named Beholder is an example of a Blue Room invention. Matt Clark, who has a 15-year-old son with severe autism, created it. Matt designed Beholder in order to better comprehend his nonverbal son’s perspective on the world. He told Forbes that he didn’t want to concentrate on the unpleasant parts of autism, but rather on “some of the intriguing features of neurodivergent vision.”

In 2016, a creative firm created an immersive experience for the National Autistic Society of the United Kingdom, depicting the consequences of isolation and overstimulation that an autistic kid could encounter in a shopping mall.

The BBC’s corporate neurodiversity program used flashing lights, shimmering patterns, and an audio track with heartbeats and anxious breathing to better educate neurotypical individuals about what autistic loved ones and coworkers face on a daily basis. The project’s director, who co-created it with an autistic colleague, revealed that family members of autistic persons reported feeling, for the first time, what their autistic relatives felt. “Everything brings it to life,” the director stated, emphasizing how much more genuine and emotional the process has become.

This kind of encounter leads to a better understanding of autistic people, which helps to eliminate the stigma surrounding the illness. When neurotypical persons have a better understanding of autism, they are more inclined to form connections with autistic people.

Purpose & Direction

A research professor at the University of Southern California who pioneered the use of virtual reality technology in psychiatry told Science magazine that the perceptual experience provided by VR has never been available before.

Virtual reality simulations may help autistic youngsters feel more secure in strange situations, according to researchers. The University of the West of England in Bristol gave 11 autistic youngsters a virtual reality tour of a local scientific museum a few days before they visited the institution. According to the study team’s leader, the pupils felt “less apprehensive, less agitated, and better prepared for that place.” The pupils felt more “purpose and direction” in where they wanted to go and what they wanted to accomplish during the tour of the actual museum, according to the professors.

Social Isolation & Neurotypical Normativity

Because existing VR technology cannot (yet) capture and depict the social isolation that persons with autism feel, the future of autism and virtual reality is fraught with debate. Furthermore, although many neurotypical people have reacted favorably and properly to what they have learnt through this technology, there is danger that others would react with pity and disdain toward autistic persons.

Some members of the autism advocacy community have expressed doubts about whether a simulation can truly capture all of the nuances of the autistic experience. The most serious criticism is that these simulations are primarily designed to appeal to neurotypical people rather than advocating for autistic people on their own terms.

Virtual Reality Challenges in the Future

Because current forms of virtual reality mostly depend on noninteractive activities, the future of autism and virtual reality will likely focus on how the technology can represent the intricacies and dynamics of social interactions.

Another future problem will be determining whether or not virtual reality can be employed as a true therapy or research tool for autism. The sample sizes in all of the study done so far have been relatively tiny, and there have been no control groups. While early indications are promising, there is no guarantee that the VR tests will pass clinical muster for widespread deployment.

Cost — not only for the technology, but also for the programmers, developers, and animators who would have to build the simulations and their contents — is a significant barrier. Current virtual reality simulations are very simplistic, with only a smattering of the realism required to accurately recreate an autistic experience.

Finally, there are still concerns about making the simulation experience more about autistic people and less about neurotypical people. “Approaches to understanding autism are framed by neurotypical concepts,” states the Autism journal. According to one developer, there is a trend toward using VR that is “about autism and autistic groups” rather than “with autism and autistic groups.” Virtual reality simulations in the first person can help with this, but the technology isn’t quite there yet due to technological and research restrictions.

There is hope that autistic people, who may feel invisible because neurotypical people don’t understand their viewpoints, will be able to use virtual reality to bridge the gap between themselves and the dominant neurotypical world they see around them. With the constant improvements in the industry, this is likely to become a reality in the near future.

References

Virtual Reality Is Changing Autism Research. (Updated in October 2018). Spectrum.

How Virtual Reality Can Assist Autism Patients (Updated April 2019) Forbes.

An Evidence-Based Systematic Review of Virtual Reality’s Effectiveness for Children and Adolescents With Autism Spectrum Disorder. (2018, August). Sensors.

Using a Virtual Reality Environment Intervention to Reduce Specific Phobia/Fear in Young People With Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). (2014). PLOS One is an open-access journal.

Virtual Reality Has the Potential to Help People with Autism Reduce Phobias. (In February of this year). Psych Central is a website dedicated to mental health.

Virtual reality provides students with new ways to learn. (In March of 2020). EdTech Magazine is a publication dedicated to education technology.

Virtual reality might help others understand what it’s like to have autism and lead to potential treatments. (Updated in October 2018). Science.

The study looked on the social isolation of young adults with autism spectrum disorder. (April 2013). Science Daily is a news site dedicated to science.

The Next Big Thing in Mental Health Could Be Virtual Reality. (As of June 2019). Scientific American is a publication dedicated to science.

Autistic People’s Neurodivergent Intersubjectivity: Distinctive Characteristics of How They Create Shared Understanding (April 2019). Autism.

How Others Make Me and My Autistic Son Feel Vulnerable (March 2018). The All-Powerful

Young Adults with High-Functioning Autism Can Benefit from Virtual Reality Social Cognition Training. (May of 2012) The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders is a publication dedicated to the study of autism and developmental disorders.

State of the Art in Virtual Reality for Autism. (2011). Cambridge University Press is a publishing house based in the United Kingdom.

Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder get virtual reality job interview training (May 2014). The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders is a publication dedicated to the study of autism and developmental disorders.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism, and Cerebral Palsy: Virtual Reality in Pediatric Neurorehabilitation (2011). Neuroepidemiology.

Enhance Emotional and Social Adaptation Skills for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Virtual Reality Enabled Approach. (February 2018). Computers & Education.

“The future of autism & virtual reality (what to expect)”. The article discusses the potential for virtual reality in assisting with social skills and communication. Reference: autism normal life.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some future treatments for autism?

A: Some of the most promising treatments for autism are based on early intervention. The best way to help children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder is by providing comprehensive and targeted therapies that address language, play-based treatment, social skills training, sensory integration therapy and behavior modification in order to improve their quality of life and minimize the chances they will self-injure or engage in aggressive behaviors.

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