The Script

1 Hi my name is Danielle Daly and in this presentation I will be talking about Virtual Reality and how it helps in the treatment of Autism. This will cover many things such as what Autism Spectrum Disorder is, how it is currently treated and a couple of the ways that Virtual Reality is helping people with overcoming many challenges and obstacles in their lives.

2 Autism Spectrum Disorder or shortened to ASD or Autism are all general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. ASD is characterised by difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination and flexible thinking. ASD effects the way individuals are able to interact with the world.

3 It is important to note that no two people with Autism Spectrum Disorder will be the same. People with ASD all have a unique combination or set of characteristics so may seem quite different. The three aspects of Autism all have overlapping features and even two siblings with ASD can be completely different to each other.

4 There are many difficulties or secondary conditions that are associated with ASD. These only effect some people and can effect them in varying degrees. Some of these are speech and language difficulties, intellectual disability, sleep problems, attention problems, epilepsy, anxiety and depression and difficulty with motor skills.

5 The way Autism has been treated has a long history and none of them have been perfect and some were complete failures such as “parentectomy” in the 1950s that involved taking the child away from their parents for long periods of time or the partly successful Aversive Punishment in the 1970s that involved shocking children to make them obey.

6 The main way that Autism is treated presently and has been since the 1960’s is what is called applied behaviour analysis. It is currently viewed as the most effective therapy for children with Autism. The therapy is intense and is ideally done for most of the child’s waking hours, or anywhere from 10, 20 or 30 hours a week.

7 So then can virtual reality surpass the current way of treating autism? Although computers have been used as a form of therapy for Autism, virtual reality is still fairly new. So why use virtual reality as a way to treat Autism? Well, one of the key factors with treating Autism is that it is best done in an environment that is as natural as possible.

8Virtual Reality has an advantage over the real world as any environment can be created and they are realistic, safe, controlled, and adaptable. Because every person with ASD are unique and have different problems, virtual reality is a great tool due to how easily worlds can be generated to tackle any various number of issues.

9 Virtual Reality can help with social interaction. There is currently a treatment being performed where a webcam projects an autistic person’s facial expression onto a digital avatar that interacts with the avatar of an autism therapist. One or more virtual characters can join as the therapist presents a different situation from day to day.

10 These scenarios can be anything from a job interview, a new neighbour to even a blind date. After the virtual reality training they saw an increased connectivity between brain regions that exchanged information during effective social interactions. Participants in this are verbal and have average or above average IQ and are between the ages of 18 and 35.

11 Another similar treatment is one where a computer TRACKED the facial expression of a 32 year old female while a game tested her social cognition and provided feedback. Instead of an Autism therapist being there with her this is a serious game that simulates everyday experiences and social interactions that are usually difficult for people with Autism.

12 Children with Autism usually lead a sedentary life as it is hard to motivate them to exercise. So Astrojumper was created. Astrojumper is a stereoscopic virtual reality exergame that presents a virtual space-themed stimuli to the user who must use physical movements to avoid collisions and gain points. It has received very positive feedback.

13 An area that virtual reality is also helping with is overcoming fears. Anxiety disorders affect around half of the children with ASD, with specific fears and phobias being one of the most common anxiety subtypes. One way to deal with this is gradual exposure to the source of the anxiety, fear or phobia. This is where VR comes in.

14 Researchers at Newcastle’s University have created a room they call “The blue room” that is being used to enable people with autism to experience their fears and phobias in a safe environment. The blue room is a 360 degree fully immersive room that is covered in blue screens that allows them to create virtual images of various scenes.

15 This means the specific environment that the young person finds challenging can be reproduced in a safe setting. Young people can navigate within and through the scenes, for example, in a supermarket or classroom with an iPad, without the need for a headset or goggles. At the start the difficulty of the scenario is low and is gradually build up over time.

16 In the study where 9 male participants aged 8-13 took part in the blue room where each child had two 20-30 minute sessions on one day and another two a week later. 6 months to 1 year after the sessions their progress was checked on managing their fear. Eight out of the nine young people went on to tackle their fear and four overcame their phobia.

17 Virtual reality can also help with basic skills. An example of this is the work of scientists at the university of Haifa in Israel. They have found that a month-long program of virtual reality training designed locally could help children between the ages of 7 – 12 improve their ability to cross the road safely by a substantial amount.

19 So what is the future of virtual reality and the treatment of Autism? A platform called the SpatialOS platform, developed by Improbably is effectively an operating system that allows developers to build detailed, dynamic worlds on an enormous scale, in real time, by harnessing the power of hundreds or even thousands of cloud computing servers.

19 Researchers from the Human-Computer Interaction lab at Germany’s Hasso Plattner Institute have created working prototypes of a device they call Impacto. The device is integrated into a band that can be worn on the arm, leg or foot of a virtual reality user. Impacto simulates contact on the wearer so that he or she can actually feel objects virtual reality.

20 In my opinion virtual reality is key in being able to help so many people with the wide range of disorders that are under the umbrella of ASD. It is safe, changeable and personalised so every person gets exactly what they need to help them. The future advancements will only aid in increasing the effectiveness of this great tool that helps better lives.

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