Both kids and adults use smartphones, computers, smart watches, TV’s, and gaming technology on a daily basis and think nothing of it except that it’s a good time, however, some kids and adults with autism who are minimally verbal or are non-verbal use iPads and voice apps to speak for them and as an educational tool every day. As a means of communication and education, tech like the iPad has lead autism support teams and parents to the doorstep of virtual reality (VR) and is proving to have a pivotal role in teaching and treating people with autism.

According to Autism Speaks and the CDC, research showed that in the United States “1 in 59 children (1 in 37 boys and 1 in 151 girls) [have] autism spectrum disorder (ASD).” Adults and children with the disorder have challenges in behavior, social skills, verbal and non-verbal communication, as well as sensory and attention issues that impact their lives, but also have unique identities, quirks, and preferences just like anyone else. Virtual reality isn’t just for exercising and playing challenging rhythm games like Beat Saber or mind flexing puzzle games like Rangi.

VR is being embraced by therapists, counselors, teachers, parents and their children as a pivotal therapy tool to help those with autism to better communicate and connect with their family, friends, and the world around them. Building reciprocal communication and social skills, like expressing appropriate responses, facial and body cues, which are especially challenging for individuals with autism.

A small study was done by Dr. Daniel Yang where young adults wore a VR headset and used a program that tracked their facial expressions and then projected them onto a virtual avatar. Seeing this projection helped participants practice their own facial and body cues with direction from a specialized therapist that also helped to reinforce looking for other people’s facial and body cues. Dr. Yang and autism specialists found that this social awareness program taught participants new skills by role-playing situations like going on a job interview, how to interact with new people and other helpful skills like dating with positive results.

Using VR therapy for autism lit up the brain during imaging tests and showed “increased brain activity and connections seen after the virtual-reality training more-closely resemble the brain activity seen in the four “neurotypical” adults serving as controls.” Feeling welcome and having a sense of belonging in a classroom is vital for students to learn, make mistakes and grow, but for many neurotypical and neuroatypical students, this isn’t the case. Data shows that 20.8% of students reported being bullied by peers, according to PACER, yet students with autism are bullied at a disturbing rate, with data from The Interactive Autism Network showing that “63% of children with ASD [being] bullied at some point in their lives.” In an article about how VR can help autistic children in the classroom, Dr. Nigel Newbutt, a department head for design communication at UWE Bristol, shares his idea that “virtual reality can provide portals into a neurotypical world, and suggests ways to help navigate this world.” Most students wouldn’t like the feeling of being stared at while being tested by a teacher in school, and for people who are bullied or stigmatized because of an autism diagnosis, this is especially true. Read more from…

thumbnail courtesy of