For people with autism, virtual reality (VR) can help them better understand others and communicate in the real world.
Immersive VR games provide a safe space where people with autism can receive rewards for actions like making eye contact with a character. Activities like virtual yoga can help improve listening skills and the ability to focus. VR can also help others understand what it’s like to be a person on the autism spectrum and close the “empathy gap.”
What is Autism?
Autism occurs on a spectrum and manifests in many different ways. As the Autism Society of America puts it: “No matter who you are, the person you are is infinite — and you are the only you there is.”
Creating a Safe (Virtual) Space
In recent years, scientists and developers have explored how VR can support people with autism. A 2019 study found that VR can help people with autism to develop practical, conceptual and social skills. “People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) tend to enjoy themselves and be engaged when interacting with computers, as these interactions occur in a safe and trustworthy environment,” according to the study.
Monica Osgood is a teacher and co-founder of Celebrate the Children School in Denville, N.J. Many of her students with autism say they feel disconnected from their bodies. “In… virtual reality, suddenly you have a child who feels that they have some control over their world,” Osgood says.
This sense of control creates a more positive environment for learning and self-expression. At the same time, VR avatars tend to have simplified body language and facial expressions, which makes communication easier for those who may have difficulty picking up on nonverbal cues. This is why Cox created a video chat prototype called Project Convey that uses emojis to make it easier for individuals on the autism spectrum to process the conversation.
When people with autism use VR, the experience is about more than being entertained — it’s about building life skills.
VR software company Floreo was co-founded by Vijay and Vibha Ravindran, who are parents of two children with autism. The software features hundreds of educational experiences, grouped for learners of different ages and specific challenges and diagnoses.
A lesson called “Meet the Animals,” for example, can help with communicative eye gaze. The game takes place in a safari park, and when the learner fixes their gaze on an animal, the animal responds with a “reward animation.” In a virtual yoga class, users develop their focus and listening abilities, as well as emotional regulation. A special “Safety” section teaches skills such as checking for cars and using a crosswalk button before crossing a road, and responding to questions from a police officer.
VR as Therapeutic Tool
Some people with autism experience phobias that negatively affect their lives. Virtual reality is emerging as an effective therapeutic tool, providing a safe space where people can encounter the source of their fear in controlled ways while in the company of a therapist. The treatment has been shown to lower stress and anxiety levels, allowing both children and adults with autism to better manage phobias in everyday life.
In addition, a growing range of VR games in the pipeline are meant to enrich the lives of people of all ages with autism, from getting used to traveling to reducing anxiety in response to certain sounds.
Closing the ‘Empathy Gap’
It makes sense that people with vastly different experiences of the world may have difficulty empathizing and communicating with each other.
The double empathy problem proposes exactly that — it suggests there’s an “empathy gap” between those with autism and those who are not on the spectrum, rather than framing any communication challenges experienced by people with autism as a one-sided “problem.”
A number of VR experiences seek to address this concern, using the technology to give people insights into what it’s like to live with autism. The National Autistic Society, for example, created a simulation called Too Much Information to portray how a child with autism might find a shopping mall overwhelming.
Walking in Someone Else’s VR Shoes
Just putting on a VR headset can help you better understand the experiences of a person with autism.
The real world can sometimes feel intense, unpleasant and difficult to manage, according to C.L. Lynch, an award-winning author and self-described “socially awkward autist.” By contrast, retreating into her mind offers a source of comfort and fascination. This creates challenges when people ask her questions or she needs to perform a task.
“So if you want to know what it is like to be autistic, put a VR headset on, and play something very interesting, while also trying to interact with the people around you as if the VR stuff isn’t actually happening,” Lynch writes.
As VR technology becomes more sophisticated, its potential to help people with autism thrive continues to unfold in promising — and sometimes unexpected — ways.