Using Virtual Reality to Help Children with Autism

These days there is so much more awareness around autism but many people still don’t realize the benefits that technology can bring to those with autism. Serene Media offers autism awareness training online but there are many more actual products available to help those that suffer with autism.

Here we share a video about using virtual reality for children with autism. You can read the full transcript below.


VR For Children with Autism

Hi. Have a seat. Okay, can you find who made that sound?

So many of my students tell me that their mind is so disconnected from their body that they wish that they could leave their body behind. In the world of Virtual Reality, suddenly you have a child who feels empowered, who feels that they have some control over their world.

That’s a whole different experience from the real world for people with Autism. They’re controlling everything. They’re in charge. We have gone through lots of different headsets to figure out the best ones.

So this is actually a consumer launch Oculus. This one had a nice form factor for kids. This is Vijay. He’s the CEO of a Virtual Reality company called Floreo. Hence all the headsets in his basement. I’m also a dad. We have two kids. An eight and a four-year-old. And our son is on the Autism spectrum. As parents of a child with Autism, you’re always looking for those moments where you find healthy engagement with something.

That where your pretend house is? -Yeah! Manoj has a deep interest in maps and navigation. It’s Ocean City. We call him our human GPS. Ocean City, Maryland. Manoj makes you look at the world in a whole new way. Like he notices things that I don’t notice. It’s one, look at that! In late 2015, Google Street View became available as a virtual reality application. Now it’s satellite mode! It is satellite mode.

I had a virtual reality headset and I was really curious to see whether he would enjoy it or not. Come over here, put it on. He tried on the headset, and… He loved it. Vibha was the one who then made the connection as like what if VR could be used as a medium for coaching skills and eventually if you could prove it out, be therapy.

What I’ve learned is that the Autistic brain has neurological differences that can present different strengths and challenges. Our ideas in VR, it’s in 3D space. It involves the same kinds of navigation challenges and communication challenges and that practice is just more useful, more applicable.

Generally, people with Autism tend to have difficulty communicating with others and focusing in group settings so Vibha and Vijay created a company that started to make VR lessons that could build communication skills. Floreo’s lessons work on elements of a very important foundational skill called joint attention. Joint attention is the ability for two people to establish shared focus on the same object. It’s a pretty important social skill that many people with Autism tend to struggle with.

What Vijay and Vibha needed to prove was that VR could actually help children with Autism build those types of skills. And they needed a partner to help them do it. This is Celebrate the Children. A special needs school in Northern New Jersey. And like most schools, they’re trying to find innovative ways to use technology to help their students. They can then bring so much more to those face-to-face real life interactions to be able to express their ideas, to feel more in control and less anxious.

Many of the students at Celebrate the Children have more severe forms of Autism than Manoj. A lot are non-verbal. So even basic communication is a really big challenge. This is Max. He has limited language skills and he often struggles with using joint attention in the classroom. Would you rather swim in the ocean or a pool? When Floreo decided to pilot their program at Celebrate the Children, they wanted to find out if their VR tools could help kids like Max build skills like joint attention.

Okay, so Max, how are you feeling today? Okay, so you’re going to put this on. Are you sure you’re okay with your glasses, right? Alright, there we are. Keep looking around. You found the chimp! Great job! Awesome! Okay, let’s see what else. Is that a bird squawking? Great job, you found it! First try! Alright. Thank you. Great work Max. Did you enjoy Floreo today? Yes. Great. Good work! Bye Bye! Unbelievable! That was incredible. I’m impressed.

Processing language and accessing his language is very difficult for him and that’s where the anxiety comes down, the confidence comes up and the motivation to come back and keep doing this. And Max isn’t the only student who participated in Floreo’s program. Hey Drew, perfect. We measure several different dimensions of skill joint attention and 10 of the 12 kids showed clear improvements in that skill. These were older kids who had more moderate to severe autism.

Floreo is busy building more advanced training situations in Virtual Reality. Can I talk to you a moment? Yes This is Manoj beta testing the latest one. A police safety simulation. The police safety module is part of an NIH study and partnership with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Autism Research. Floreo started building the police safety module after an incident in 2016 where police approached an Autistic man who wandered from his group home. The incident resulted in his caretaker being shot by the police. We basically started building content to simulate what it would be like to have an unexpected encounter with law enforcement and start being exposed to some of the language that the officers would use in that interaction. Alright, you’re free to go.

These children are intelligent. It’s not a matter of intellectual disability, it’s more how the information is coming in and their inability to organize that information. There is transferral between enjoying an activity in the digital space to then building skills and applying it to the real world. And if you can then build on that you can then take their engagement to new levels of relationship with finding new ways of play and enjoyment, relationship with their parents… It just opens their world up more.