Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects 1 in 160 children. Those that have ASD tend to develop it early on, usually exhibiting signs of the disorder by the age of 5. As autism is defined as a spectrum disorder, each child’s diagnosis differs significantly- some children may have one defining trait whilst others will experience many symptoms. This raises the question: how do parents of autistic children seek effective social skills training that aligns with the individual needs of their child?

VR for improving social and behavioural skills for autistic children

One common symptom children with autism carry is disinterest in engaging with others. With a preference to go about doing things independently, children with autism would benefit greatly from the personalised nature of virtual reality. As VR uses interactive video gaming and multisensory features, it is a more engaging and suitable alternative for autistic children needing to learn social skills. VR uses gaming and other simulation activities where tasks are easily modified in the virtual environment to cater to the child’s development and progress.

In fact, one VR game that was developed by researchers in the field, enabled teenagers with autism to interact with an avatar. Participants’ interaction with the avatar was tracked and results were placed on an ‘engagement score.’ Social cues such as eye contact, how often a user blinks and even the size of his pupils are tracked. The avatar also spoke to the user if they didn’t perform correctly, in order to encourage the teenager to increase focus and improve on social engagement. By contrast, if the user asked appropriate questions and was able to show a considerable amount of eye contact, they were required to proceed on to a higher level of interactive games. 

This example deserves an honourable mention as it has been found that people who have autism enjoy playing video games. Ergo, virtual reality games could be the new and upcoming choice for interactive learning for children on the spectrum.

VR for helping Autistic children build more than communication skills 

A 2018 Sensors journal, analysed 31 studies that comprised a total of 142 boys and 22 girls who are on the spectrum. The clinical focus of each study was primarily on emotional and social skills. The children were tested on how well they responded to social interactions, and whether they were able to recognise core emotions. In addition, a couple of the studies addressed therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy and daily living scenarios such as shopping at a supermarket or teaching teenagers how to drive, all of which were carried out using VR technology. Here is what the studies found:

Can VR training increase the wellbeing and happiness of children with autism?  

Currently, there are some limitations to VR training for children with autism. As some would argue that in order to fully develop social cognitive skills, there should be a multi-user collaborative environment in VR, designed solely for the purpose of social training. Going with this point, there have been studies that suggest live interactions are more powerful for understanding emotional cues, as VR deprives the flow of natural, non-scripted communication. 

However, isn’t there a need for more technology-based, effective social skills training for children with ASD? Training to better their development now so that they can be more prepared for later stages in life? Like their first day of high school or first day on a new job? 

Studies have found having poor social interactions leads to frustration and can hinder a child’s  academic performance due to reduced self-esteem. And that practicing in VR, reduces social anxiety, particularly for children who have high functioning autism. In fact, another study found that using VR in combination with CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) improved anxiety levels in austistic children. 

In addition, VR broadens learning, as its interactive platform allows switching from one setting to the next instantaneously. This may very well be a great thing for children on the spectrum, showing how no social interaction is ever the same, however, having general social skills can make everyday life that little bit more easy. Now, who wouldn’t want that?

Written by Lauren Tizzone

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