How virtual reality can help those with autism

Sol Rogers

Autism is what is known as a spectrum condition, meaning it affects individuals in different ways. Adults and children with autism have challenges in behavior, social skills, verbal and non-verbal communication, as well as sensory and attention issues that impact their lives. However, they also have unique identities, quirks, and preferences - just like anyone else.

With World Autism Awareness Week taking place this week, it’s a unique time for everyone to learn more about autism - from the general public to politicians.

One tool that is being embraced by therapists, counselors, teachers, parents and their children to help those with autism to better communicate and connect with others and the world around them is virtual reality. It is also being used to help others without autism to understand what living with the condition means. Many argue that there is no other medium that comes as close to putting you in someone else’s shoes as VR.

Autism therapists and researchers started to use VR in the mid-1990s. Researchers often deployed the technology to create virtual environments to help autistic people prepare for encounters or situations that could be stressful. For example, the Center for BrainHealth and the Child Study Center at Yale University’s School of Medicine collaborated to help young adults with ASD achieve economic and social independence with the help of VR. Carly McCullar, who has ASD, went through the Center’s social cognition training during her senior year. The training taught her to handle situations such as job interviews, a problem with a neighbor and even dating.

VR has also been used to help prepare autistic children for public speaking. Using an audience of avatars which faded away if eye contact wasn’t made by the speaker, children were encouraged to look around the room, rather than just ahead. The game of keeping the avatars on screen was met with a good response from the participants.

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