Written by JungYeon Choe. Edited by Elliot Hu-Au.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1 out of every 68 school-age child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (CDC, 2016). In the United States, more than 3.5 million American live with this disorder (Buescher et al, 2014). Developing effective treatments is difficult because there are many variations within ASD. Only limited interventions exist because it takes various resources and significant amounts of funding to construct an effective, individualized treatment. Also, despite the prevalence of ASD, services furnishing the needs related to ASD are very expensive. For example, American households with ASD pay $236-262 billion annually and it costs more than $8,600 a year to educate a child with autism (Buescher et al, 2014; Lavelle et al, 2014).
This article explores whether virtual reality and augmented reality are effective tools in helping children with autism improve their troubles with communication, attention, or social interaction.
Technology has great potential to provide diverse solutions and opportunities related to autism. In particular, it has been observed that autistic children especially relate well to technology, such as virtual reality. An emerging field of research dedicated to this topic has sprung up in the last 15 years. Current popular virtual reality or augmented reality intervention reports that they have a positive potential for developing social cognition skills for children with ASD (Odom et al., 2015). (Image at right shows the Empower Me AR product by Brain Power, utilizing Google Glass.)
Escobedo, Tentori, Quintana, Favela, & Garcia-Rosas (2014) used an AR application called Mobis (mobile object identification system) to test if autistic students’ sustained and selective attentions increased during therapy. According to the students who participated in the study, they claimed that Mobis was “useful, exciting, and easy to use” (p. 43). Although teachers noted that students experienced some difficulties with using smartphones, students eventually acclimated to the smartphone and had no trouble holding and using the phone. This study demonstrates that AR technology can be used for low functioning autism children and that an AR application caught students’ attentions and made the therapy much more engaging and proactive.
Another example is ARVMS or augmented reality-based video modeling with storybooks (Chen, Lee, & Lin, 2015). Video modeling (VM) is a method of teaching that employs video recording and displays to provide a visual model of the targeted behavior or skill (Franzone & Collet-Klingenberg, 2008). Although VM is an evidence-based instructional strategy, there are some weak points for training children with ASD in social skills (Chen et al., 2015). Children with ASD find it difficult to focus and concentrate on complex and long films presented by VM materials (Chen et la., 2015; Elasbbagh et al., 2009; Facoetti, Ruffino, Peru, Pagnoni, & Chelazzi, 2008). In order to gain students’ attention, Chen et al., (2015), use AR technology to decrease their visual stress. AR learning activities have also been shown to positively increase students’ motivations to learn (DiSerio, Ibanez, & Kloos, 2013) and encourage students to maintain their focus (Chen et la., 2015; Escobedo et al., 2014). Lastly, storybooks function as the bridge for demonstrating emotional and nonverbal content of social interaction in images. They can portray everyday life activities and focus on special moments or social cues suitable for children with ASD. The purpose of ARVMS is to teach crucial social abilities that help children with ASD to better understand the facial expressions and emotions of others in social situations (Chen et la., 2015). Chen et al., (2015) found that the student participants found ARVMS to be effective in both learning the six basic facial expressions of others and maintaining focus by triggering learning incentives and encouraging them to observe nonverbal social cues.
Virtual reality (VR) is also an effective tool in helping autistic children learn social interaction and nonverbal cues. According to Bricken (1991) and Strickland (1997), VR is beneficial for learning experiences because VR learning environments can be fit to match the individual’s needs. For example, virtual environments or input stimuli are controllable to match the what is tolerable to the individual. Hence, VR offers the capability of individual treatment which will help autistic patients with multiple symptoms. In addition, virtual learning worlds provide a less hazardous and more forgiving environment by decreasing the complexity of social interactions (Standen & Brown, 2006).( Image at left is a VR product aimed at ASD by Floreo.)
Lahiri, Bekele, Dohrmann, Warren, and Sarkar (2013) used VR and gaze-sensitive adaptive response technology to see if children with autism could improve social task performance. The purpose of their VR based ASD technology was to get real-time measurement of a child’s looking pattern, their engagement, and to provide individual feedback based on the measurements. The study concluded that users were able to improve one’s social task performance such as making eye contact while communication or performing socially appropriate manners. However, despite the positive result, the researchers recognized a limitation of the realism of social interactions when in controlled environments.
VR and AR have been studied for many years but there is a void in studies done on the effectiveness these technologies have in helping children with autism learn. There are many more studies on VR rather than AR; however, this is not surprising given the relatively recent development of AR. However, since high-end VR generally costs more than AR, and AR is typically more accessible due to the mobility of smartphones, more fruitful research could be pursued in AR applications for students with ASD. At any rate, the recent growth in VR and AR coupled with research-based practices promises new methods of assisting students on the autism spectrum.
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