According to a study by Autism Speak and the CDC, 1 in 59 children in the U.S has autism. While children and adults with autism have verbal, behavioral, and social skills challenges, they also have unique identities and preferences like anyone else. Some people with autism who are minimally verbal or non-verbal use iPad and voice apps to speak for them. Also, they use iPads as an educational tool every day. Tech like the iPad has led both parents and the autism support team to embrace virtual reality. Today, more and more counselors, therapists, teachers, and parents are leveraging Virtual Reality as a therapy tool to help autistic people to communicate and connect with the world around them better. For example, the Center for BrainHealth and the Child Study Center at Yale University’s School of Medicine used VR to help young adults with autism achieve economic and social independence.
Additionally, the technology is helping non-autistic people clear some misconceptions about autism and understand the reality of living with the condition.
While VR has been gaining attention recently, it was used for therapy as early as 1996. The studies in the 90s were promising, but VR was expensive, and headsets were bulky and uncomfortable, which was a major hurdle for people with sensory disorders. All these issues prevented VR therapies from becoming a viable option for people with autism.
Today, VR technology is not just cheap and accessible. The VR headsets are lighter and more comfortable too. So, researchers are studying the potential of Virtual Reality as a treatment tool for autism more than ever before.
Uses of VR in Autism Care
1. VR Apps
At the University of Haifa, researchers have created a VR app that trains kids to cross a road safely. This app simulates what it would be like to cross the road with cars and traffic lights. The interesting part of the app is that it allows kids to practice crossing the street without the real-world consequence of being hit by a car. Kids can practice each step as long they need and reduce the risk while learning a new skill.
Floreo is a VR learning and social skills app that therapists, parents, schools can use and support staff to help kids with autism. This app helps children learn social skills like reciprocity and planning for unexpected situations through social stories. It also helps them detach emotionally with interactive virtual sensory tools. The app can be installed on a smartphone or tablet with a Google Cardboard headset. It comes with a good data capture system making it easier to track individual goals.
2. VR Games
Teachers recommend that parents play games with autistic kids to help them learn to mimic skills like sharing and back and forth communication. Generally, autistic people can find it difficult to make eye contact or have a two-way conversation between people. This struggle can unintentionally push others away. VR games such as Playground, Astropolis, and non-VR software such as SketchUp use the VR motivator as both play and learning opportunities.
- Astropolis puts players in a spaceship to fly, using resources to ensure space colonies are happy and functioning. Players can collect and manage the resources and defend the colony as well.
- Maritime Defender is yet another mini-game they can practice letting pilots through a wormhole or not allowing them to pass through. This helps with decision-making and control-based skills.
- Stellar Prospector and Starjack improve perception and thinking, and autistic people are encouraged to play this game.
- Sketchup, a 3D architectural and designing software, helps draft objects and structures. It gives autistic kids and adults a creative outlet not found in any school setting.
Other VR games such as Vivecraft, Tilt Brush, and Medium also help build things in 3-D and 360-degrees without the real-world challenges like running out of supplies or messing up, or having to start fresh. These games do not get autistic people direct jobs in coding, architecture, art, and design, but ignite their passion and encourage them to pursue a career in those fields.
3. Tackling Phobias
Virtual reality can tackle phobias in autistic kids, such as fear of classrooms, balloons, animals, and public transport. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy(CBT), along with visualization and imagination, can combat the effects of these phobias.
Using VR, participants enter a “Blue Room” and navigate through a 360-degrees video projection of a scene usually accompanied by audio that replicates the object or experience they fear. Here the participants do not have to wear goggles as the therapist manipulates the scene using iPad controls. Also, the therapist uses CBT techniques to calm the participants when exposed to their phobias.
The VR technology enables therapists, medical professionals, and parents to leverage it to help people with autism learn differently and improve their communication skills.