As any behavioral therapist can attest, it is challenging to reproduce daily life scenarios that can give autistic children valuable experience and confidence. Accurately recreating certain scenarios – such as crossing a street, riding a train, or picking a seat in a crowded theater – is an impossible ask. Virtual reality stands to be a game changer in this respect.
The Benefits of VR
Virtual reality can reproduce scenarios in a safe and realistic way. These scenarios, if desired, can be free from unwanted distractions (ex. street noise, yelling, music) freeing the child to first focus on the task at hand without being overwhelmed by other sensory stimuli.
Another potential benefit of VR is simple access. Quality therapy is out of reach for some families due to cost, distance, and time commitment. Teletherapy and online learning platforms drive each of these obstacles down significantly.
The concept of using virtual reality to help autistic children is not a new one. However, before it could be considered a viable mainstream option, costs for commercially available equipment and software needed to come down and the quality of the VR experience needed to become more realistic. That time is coming soon.
Remarkably, you only need a mobile phone, an inexpensive VR headset, an iPad or Laptop, access to quality lessons via download or streaming service, and Wi-Fi. These requirements are well within financial reach for most families and therapists. The child wears the headset (with the mobile phone serving as the screen) and the therapist or parent typically interacts with the child via an iPad.
One concern is whether autistic children can successfully interact with the technology, specifically the headsets. The answer – at least for adolescents – appears to be ‘yes’. A recent Autism Research journal article references a study that claims 98% of autistic adolescents were able to successfully complete VR-based lessons. (link)
And there is always the autism advocate argument that states that the burden of conforming with neurotypical individuals does not rest with the child. They believe that society needs to be more welcoming and understanding of an autistic child’s needs and that behavioral therapy – and tools such as VR – can do as much harm as good.
What the Future Holds
VR lessons are actively being designed by companies such as Floreo, reproducing trips to the grocery store, aquarium, city bus, university, trick or treating, you name it.
The future for leveraging virtual reality for helping children with autism is filled with promise. We will keep you posted on this exciting development.
I’m interested to hear what parents and professionals think about this.