Parents of an autistic child know the world outside their home can be an especially intimidating place. 

Now, a technology associated with fantasy worlds is helping individuals with autism cope with the real world. 
Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas Center for BrainHealth are working with teenagers and young adults diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder known as Asperger’s Syndrome using virtual reality training.

Youth with this type of autism suffer from a variety of social cognitive defects, including an inability to read nonverbal clues, adapt well to change and handle their emotions. These young people face many obstacles in life. Interacting with other children in the playground or going through the lunch line can be monumentally difficult.

To help them succeed, researchers from the center have created a virtual world using a Second Life platform for them to practice their social skills. Each child creates an avatar/character in his or her likeness, who then navigates through a virtual world, interacting with real people represented by their own avatars. 
       
The virtual world includes settings commonly encountered in everyday life such as classrooms, playgrounds, cafeterias, and parks, where they can meet “new” children in a safe, controlled environment. For example, if the goal is to make new friends, their avatars substitute for them as they practice their ‘friend-making’ skills with real people online until the fear and anxiety of a real encounter diminishes. This method is distinct
from role-playing in that they feel the same emotions as they would in direct encounters.

Virtual reality provides a therapy tool to rewire the brain through practical experiences that can be manipulated in ways the real world cannot, says Dr. Sandra Chapman, director of the Center for BrainHealth.  “The clinicians can change the virtual world to increase the complexity of the exercise, control for sensory overload, provide motivation, and record feedback,” said Chapman. 

“Unlike other models of intervention such as role-playing, for instance virtual world experience provides a powerful way to learn new and more appropriate ways to respond to people in scenarios similar to those faced everyday,” she said.
       
In addition to the virtual-world therapy, the young adults receive plenty of one-on-one coaching as they are trained to develop the insight to assess their own responses. At first, they watch recordings of their interactions, and gradually they are expected to modify their behaviors to fit the context in real time. The idea is to train their brains in new ways of thinking in contexts that closely mimic real life. That goal is to stop unhelpful responses before they can start.
       
 Virtual-reality therapy has become a new tool in brain rehabilitation. Therapists are also using the gaming technology for people who suffer from schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder, addictions, strokes and brain injuries.

Resources

Autism Asperger Publishing Co. — www.asperger.net

Autism Research Institute — www.autism.com

Autism Society of America — www.autism-society.org

Autism Speaks — www.autismspeaks.org

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