Virtual reality training and autism? I was a bit incredulous when I first saw this headline. Certainly we are deluged with articles on “What Apps Work Best” and how technology benefits children on the spectrum. As a non-techy, I wasn’t even sure what virtual reality means. After some digging, I learned many important facts and became impressed with its potential.
First, a brief definition: Virtual reality is a computer-simulated environment that can mimic physical presence in the real world. It can even re-create sensory experiences like virtual taste, sight, smell, sound, and touch.
For individuals on the spectrum, this ability to replicate everyday situations is important because it allows practice of challenging situations in a non-threatening environment. A great example of this is rehearsal of social interaction, which is often a deficit for children with ASD. By engaging in non-scripted, virtual dialogues, individuals can improve their conversational skills as well as their ability to decipher facial expressions without becoming overwhelmed due to the presence of another person. For adults, the opportunity to engage in job interviews through virtual reality simulations can provide the confidence and skills they need to secure a job in the real world.
Researchers have found that in as little as five weeks, participants’ scores have significantly improved in the domains of emotional recognition and the ability to understand and respond to what others are thinking. Interestingly, researchers have also found that after virtual reality training, young adults with autism show increased activation in brain regions associated with social understanding as well as the formation of new connections between brain regions. (Read the full research article here.)
Last year, Steve Weiser (GM of the Erie Chamber Orchestra), gave us the opportunity to try out an Oculus virtual reality headset. It was quite the experience; however, these headsets are currently not available for consumers. It will be interesting to see the evolution of virtual reality over the next couple of years, or perhaps even sooner!