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Podcast on Virtual Reality Tools for Autism

June 28, 2012

In the latest “Autism Matters” podcast, Simon Wallace, Ph.D., discusses research on using immersive virtual environments to help children with autism. His related study is available online in the journal Autism.

Dr. Wallace is the research director of Autistica, a U.K.-based charity that raises funds for autism research. Until recently, he was Autism Speaks’ director of scientific development – Europe. During his years at Autism Speaks, Dr. Wallace helped develop its Innovative Technology for Autism Initiative.

Many gaming websites use virtual environments. They allow gamers to choose virtual characters, or avatars, and interact with others in a virtual world. Immersive virtual environments surround the user with large screens to enhance the sense of being within the virtual world.

Going into the study, Dr. Wallace and his team had concerns that children on the autism spectrum might have difficulty with the sensory stimulation of the immersive virtual environment. However, they saw no negative sensory responses. In fact, children affected by autism appeared to experience the virtual environments in much the same way as do typically developing children. However, compared to children without autism, the children with autism were less able to judge the social cues of the program’s virtual child avatars.

The team’s long-term goal is to see if immersive virtual environments might prove useful for helping children with autism better judge and respond to social cues in real life.

Produced for both lay people and researchers, the “Autism Matters” podcast series showcases new research with real-world relevance. It is hosted by University of London psychologist Laura Crane, Ph.D.