White and black virtual reality goggles laying on grass

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that affects about one percent of the global population. Children can fall anywhere on the spectrum, which ranges from mild to severe. All kids with ASD have some level of social, behavioral, and communication challenges. Getting children with ASD to engage with others and understand social cues is challenging for parents, teachers, and counselors.

Fortunately, virtual reality technology is showing promise in changing how children with ASD interact with the world around them.

Understanding Autism

Before we dive into the ways virtual reality is improving the lives of those with autism spectrum disorder, let’s review the nature of the condition. There are no medical tests that can diagnose a child with ASD. The diagnosis is based on observations healthcare providers make when assessing the child’s behaviors and developmental milestones. Characteristics of ASD can often be seen in children around the age of 18 months, but a definitive diagnosis might not be given until a much older age.

The exact cause of ASD isn’t known. However, it is linked to several environmental, biological, and genetic factors. A few of these factors include having a sibling with ASD, certain genetic conditions, and being born to older parents. The main symptoms of autism include social communication challenges and repetitive behaviors that start in early childhood and interfere with daily life.

Because ASD can’t be cured, treatment aims to help the child acclimate to their environment and overcome developmental challenges and delays. Early intervention, services started between birth to three years of age, are crucial for those who are diagnosed early. It can minimize developmental delays. Any treatment provided to children with ASD must be individualized because each child with the condition will have a unique set of challenges. This is one reason VR has become such an innovative and effective way to help those with ASD.

The Rise of VR

You’ve probably seen videos of people wearing headsets and swatting at images only they can see. While entertaining, VR has gained much acclaim as a therapeutic treatment for autism and other conditions. But, what is actually going on inside that headset?

VR is a computer-aided immersive illusion of being somewhere you’re not. Headsets can plunge the user into the ocean, the Sahara desert, or amid the Mayan Ruins. Virtual reality as we know it today entered our world in the 1990s in the form of gaming consoles and handheld systems, though they never achieved the desired results from developers from a technological or economic viewpoint. However, when smartphones emerged, they brought new possibilities to VR. Today, VR technology is changing how marketers conduct research, how physicians practice surgical techniques, and how astronauts prepare for a walk on Mars. 

Changing ASD Treatment

Using technology to help children with disabilitiesisn’t a new practice. Classrooms have been filled with braille translators, text-to-speech devices, screen magnifiers, and voice recognition software for many years. Virtual reality headsets are just another tool now that can help children with autism learn the necessary skills for life outside the context of a learning environment. Here are a few ways VR is helping kids with autism:

Gaining New Ways to Navigate the World

Children with autism have difficulties expressing emotions through facial and body language. They may find it challenging to interpret these same cues in others. VR headsets are used to teach children with ASD how to recognize the meaning of facial and body cues in themselves. VR can also be used to increase social awareness by putting the child in role-playing situations so that they can navigate the world in a safe environment.

One such VR app teaches children how to cross the road safely. The child sees images of a street with cars and traffic lights and can learn to navigate through these situations without the real worries of being hit by a car. The child can take their time to make decisions and logically work through different circumstances. The VR technology even provides feedback and can determine if the child looked both ways before crossing the road.

Learning Social Skills

Another way VR technology is helping those with ASD is by teaching them social skills — the back-and-forth flow of social interaction and how to communicate. These skills can be used at home, school, or on the sports field. The app places the child in realistic environments and helps them learn to navigate the world and people around them.

Characters in these apps can change their facial expression to match specific situational contexts. The user can then wander around the virtual space to meet these characters and interact with them. The child is encouraged to strike up a conversation and is later tested on their ability to recognize the emotions the character was displaying. This requires children with ASD to look at the character’s face, which is often a challenging task in real life. However, when doing it in the VR setting, it can be a bit more comfortable. A virtual environment provides a safe place for them to practice this skill.

Expanding Research

Researchers are now using VR to study social cognition in those with autism. The technology reflects the dynamics of human interaction much better than standard screen-based scenarios. VR also allows people with autism to be an active participant in the study, rather than just being the subject of research. Even though VR has advantages over other forms of research, barriers, such as the costs of programmers and animators, must be overcome.

Virtual reality offers a unique approach to the needs of those with ASD. With continued research and technological advancements, children with autism can learn new ways to interact with the world around them.