VR Helps Autistic Kids Overcome Social Challenges in a New Study

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Photo credit: Tim Bartel (CC BY-SA 2.0)

New research out of the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas offers a potential new way for young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to prepare for social situations in a safe environment.

Researchers used a VR training program to help participants learn strategies for potentially challenging social situations like meeting a peer for the first time, confronting a bully, or inviting someone to a party.

“Individuals with autism may become overwhelmed and anxious in social situations,” research clinician Dr. Nyaz Didehbani said. “The virtual reality training platform creates a safe place for participants to practice social situations without the intense fear of consequence.”

The study brought together 30 participants, all ages 7-16 and diagnosed with high-functioning autism. Participants was teamed up with two clinicians, one serving as a coach and the other playing the part of the bully, peer, or other person in the virtual reality scenario. Over five weeks, they went through 10 hour-long sessions, learning and practicing strategies for those challenging social situations.

Findings from the study were published in Computers in Human Behavior this month. They included improvements in emotion recognition, social attribution and executive function of analogical reasoning (the ability to draw conclusions by associating systems or situations with others we’ve experienced).

“This research builds on past studies we conducted with adults on the autism spectrum and demonstrates that virtual reality may be a promising and motivating platform for both age groups,” said Tandra Allen, head of virtual training programs. “This was the first study to pair participants together with the goal of enhancing social learning. We observed relationships in life grow from virtual world conversations. We saw a lot of growth in their ability to initiate and maintain a conversation, interpret emotions and judge the quality of a friendship.”

The Center for BrainHealth is also looking for people ages 17 – 40 who have been diagnosed with ASD or Asperger’s for a similar study on virtual reality intervention. If you’d like to see if you qualify, you can find more information on the center’s website.