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October 17th, 2023

What is VR for Autism?

“VR for Autism” refers to the use of virtual reality (VR) technology as a therapeutic, educational, or skill-building tool for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ASD is a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties with social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior. VR technology can create controlled, immersive, 3D environments that can be used for a variety of applications in the treatment and support of individuals with autism.

How VR is Used to Treat Autism

vr for autism

VR applications specifically designed for individuals with ASD can simulate real-world scenarios in a safe, repeatable, and adjustable 3D setting, allowing users to practice and navigate various social interactions and behavioral responses or to confront and manage sensory challenges they typically face. This technology’s ability to provide a safe space for learning and therapy, while reducing the unpredictability and anxieties often associated with real-world experiences, makes it an effective and versatile tool in autism treatment, catering to the unique needs and learning styles of those on the autism spectrum.

1. Improving Social Skills and Communication

One of the primary uses of VR in autism therapy is to help individuals improve their social interaction and communication skills. The VR environment can simulate real-life social scenarios in a controlled setting, which can be less stressful and more predictable than real-life social interactions. This allows individuals with ASD to practice and learn social cues, facial expressions, and conversation skills.

2. Desensitization to Stimuli

People with ASD can sometimes experience sensory overload or anxiety in specific environments. VR can simulate these environments, allowing individuals to experience them in a controlled, gradual manner. This can help desensitize them to sensory stimuli and reduce anxiety in these situations.

3. Life Skills and Independence

VR programs can also simulate scenarios like street crossing, shopping, or using public transportation. This helps individuals with autism practice these tasks and learn necessary skills in a safe environment, thereby promoting independence.

4. Education and Concentration

VR can provide immersive educational programs that can be more engaging for individuals with ASD, holding their attention better than traditional learning methods. It can also be tailored to the individual’s learning pace and style.

5. Understanding Emotions and Expressions

Some VR applications are designed to help those with ASD better recognize and understand emotional expressions on people’s faces, an area where they may struggle.

Is VR Effective for Autism?

Vr for autistic kids

A recent study published in 2022 showed that VR training can be even more effective than individual therapist training.

Another 2018 study demonstrated that VR environments could be used to expose children with ASD to various stimuli that they find distressing, in a controlled manner. This exposure helped reduce anxiety levels and improved their real-world functioning.

A third study published in 2019 in the “Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders” explored the feasibility and efficacy of a VR classroom-based social cognition training for autistic adolescents. The study found that the VR intervention was feasible and well-received by participants, and improvements in social cognition were noted.

There are a wide variety of studies that support the effectiveness of using VR to treat autism, however, while VR for autism holds promising potential, it should be used as a complement to, not a replacement for, traditional therapies, and under professional guidance. Also, the effectiveness of VR interventions can vary among individuals, as ASD manifests in a wide range of symptoms and severities.

Can VR Cause Sensory Overload?

Yes, VR can potentially cause sensory overload, especially in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who may be more sensitive to sensory input. Sensory overload occurs when one or more of the body’s senses experience over-stimulation from the environment. Here are several ways this might happen with VR:

  1. Visual Intensity: The immersive nature of VR means that the visual stimuli completely surround a user and can be quite intense. Bright colors, flashing lights, or rapid scene changes that are common in some VR applications can be overwhelming, especially for individuals with sensitivity to visual stimuli.
  2. Audio Stimuli: VR often includes audio components. Sudden sounds, multiple layers of noise, or high volumes can be jarring for individuals with auditory sensitivities.
  3. Lack of Familiarity: The immersive environment of VR can create a sense of displacement from the real world. For individuals with ASD, who may rely on familiar routines and environments, this can be disconcerting and stressful.
  4. Physical Sensations: While VR is primarily visual and auditory, some setups can include physical components (like vibrating chairs or handheld controllers). Unexpected or intense physical sensations can contribute to sensory overload.
  5. Simulation Sickness: Some individuals experience discomfort, dizziness, or nausea while using VR, a phenomenon known as simulation sickness or VR-induced motion sickness. It results from a disconnect between visual motion cues that users see and the physical motion they feel. This discomfort can exacerbate feelings of sensory overload.

To mitigate the risk of sensory overload, consider the following:

  • Gradual Introduction: Slowly introduce the individual to the VR environment. Start with shorter sessions and increase the duration as they become more comfortable.
  • Content Selection: Choose VR applications that are calming, have fewer sensory triggers, and are customizable. Being able to control the intensity of the stimuli in the VR experience can be helpful.
  • Supervision and Support: Professional guidance or supervision during VR sessions can help manage potential issues. A therapist, for example, can watch for signs of distress and end the session if necessary.
  • Customization: Some VR applications allow for customization of the sensory experience, such as adjusting the brightness, sound levels, and other sensory inputs.
  • Breaks and Recovery Time: Ensure there are ample opportunities for breaks to prevent overwhelming the individual, and provide a comfortable, quiet space for recovery if sensory overload occurs.

Resources for Getting Started in VR for Autism

VR for autism treatment

Best VR device for Autism: Meta Quest 3 (Oculus Quest 3)

Program/App for Autism:

Apps/games for Autistic People: In progress