Initially thought of as a novelty entertainment platform, virtual reality has recently emerged as an accessible, affordable technology for a variety of use purposes, including education and training. Researchers have also highlighted that it may offer a way to improve the lives of people with disabilities, especially autism.
The National Autistic Society estimates that around 700,000 people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum; that is almost one in 100. It’s a condition that can make a social, multi-sensory world as ours extremely difficult to navigate. While autism is impossible to cure, we know that certain types of therapy can help people on the spectrum overcome their challenges, and virtual reality (VR) has shown early promise in being one of these, in several different ways!
Spatial reality environments can be used as a tool to help autistic people improve their social and communication skills. One research study has explored the effects of a VR learning environment, teaching social skills to children aged 10-14. The findings of the study have been extremely promising, with the children having demonstrated improved performance in social tasks thanks to the application.
VR projections don’t just serve to educate: they can also serve as excellent preparation environments. Some people on the spectrum take comfort in a regular routine; any unexpected change or disruption to this could be a huge trigger for stress. Spatial reality applications could be used to help people prepare for unfamiliar situations, by giving them a safe, controlled atmosphere where they can learn what to expect and how to respond.
Spatial Sensory Environments
Many autistic people have difficulty processing sensory information. For example, they may be extremely sensitive to loud noise, or fixated by lights of a particular colour.
Sensory rooms (also known as ‘snoezelen’) Not only are they often calming spaces for individuals to relax in, but they also provide a space where one can develop and engage their senses in a controlled environment. However, they can be rather expensive to set up and run, thanks to all the specialist equipment and electricity they require!Given that autism is a spectrum, not all individuals with the condition would want the same solutions: an object that one autistic person may find pleasant could completely stress out another! Fortunately, just like a physical sensory room, a virtual spatial snoezelen could easily be adapted for the individual’s needs.
Explaining Autism Itself
Since many of its challenges are the result of perceiving the world differently, autism is a disability that can be tricky to explain or understand unless you have it yourself. Immersive films and applications have proven to be a useful medium for illustrating how the everyday world seems to an autistic person.
For example, in 2017, The Guardian launched ‘The Party’, a short 360-degree film told from the perspective of an autistic teenager as she slowly becomes overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of her mother’s birthday celebration. We believe it does an amazing job of communicating how situations that are mundane or pleasurable for most people can be unbearable for someone with autism. Maybe a VR version of a video like this could feel even more impactful.
A standard VR headset can be rather bulky to wear. For an autistic person with sensory issues (amongst many other people), this could make for a rather uncomfortable experience. Here at PortalCo, however, we develop solutions offering all the eye-popping visuals without the need for a headset, offering a much more comfortable virtual adventure. If you work with autistic people and are tempted by the idea of providing them with comfortable and enjoyable virtual spaces, feel free to check out our low-cost, accessible solutions.