Research: Virtual Reality and the Treatment of Austism

Virtual Reality Training Improves Social Skills and Brain Activity

A webcam projects his or her facial expressions onto a digital avatar that interacts with the avatar of an autism therapist.

One or more virtual characters join in as the therapist presents the day’s situation. It may be a job interview, a new neighbor or a blind date. The counselor also describes the social skills they’ll be practicing. The task may involve recognizing the unspoken intentions behind a behavior or sharing an opinion in a socially acceptable way.

After the virtual reality training, young adults with autism showed increased activation in brain regions associated with social understanding.

Virtual Reality Social Cognition Training for Young Adults with High-Functioning Autism

Overall, the previous literature in HFA
adults has demonstrated that targeted interventions can
improve social skills and social cognition. However, the
majority of these interventions have been social skills-
based and group-based which may limit the amount of
practice of social skills and the amount of time spent
interacting with others outside the autism spectrum.
Unlike other therapeutic options,
such as role-playing, VR represents real-life experiences in
a safe, controllable manner that allow for repeated practice
and exposure, which is a key element in treatment. VR can
also provide naturalistic environments with unlimited
social scenarios and has been shown to replicate social
conditions
Importantly, VR
allows for social interactions without the high levels of
stress, fears of mistakes or rejection that is commonly
encountered in face-to-face exchanges
The flexibility of VR environments,
their removal of common stressors of face-to-face inter-
actions, and their inherent appeal to many adults with ASD,
all suggest that VR may prove to be a more effective
platform for enhancing social skills and social cognition in
ASD compared to other therapeutic tools that are more
didactic and constrained in their application.
While these previous VR studies showed promise, they
were limited in several ways. First, the VR software
incorporated AI in which the participant made a mouse
click on the screen to activate feedback on programmed
social decisions. This explicit and discrete skill set
approach and software may limit practice, feedback, and
possibly the effects of social interventions. Secondly,
measurement of social performance over time was limited
to experimental measures. Measurement of social skills and
behavior is difficult especially since few social measures
are published or standardized. A further complication is the
lack of sensitive measures, which can impact results of
social skills program making them appear less effective

A VR Based Intervention Tool for Autism Spectrum Disorder

How 3D Virtual Humans Built by Adolescents with ASD Affect Their 3D Interactions

Training games have many potential benefits for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) intervention, such as increasing motivation and improving the abilities of performing daily living activities, due to their ability to simulate real world scenarios. A more motivating game may stimulate users to play the game more, and it may also result in users performing better in the game. Incorporating users’ interests into the game could be a good way to build a motivating game, especially for users with ASD.

Virtual Reality for the Treatment of Autism

Autism is a mental disorder which has received attention in several unrelated studies using virtual reality. One of the first attempts was to diagnose children with special needs at Tokyo University using a sandbox playing technique. Although operating the computer controls proved to be too difficult for the individuals with autism in the Tokyo study, research at the University of Nottingham, UK, is successful in using VR as a learning aid for children with a variety of disorders including autism. Both centers used flat screen computer systems with virtual scenes.

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