21 - Virtual Stimulation Encourages Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder to become Socially Interactive
Virtual reality simulations have been used to increase social interactivity in kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as shown in recent studies. By being able to learn and communicate in a 'virtual world', those diagnosed with an autistic disorder have the ability to learn and connect in an environment without the external social pressures.

Autism disorders are characterized by problems with social interaction, communication, and learning. Diagnosis within this autism spectrum depends on the person, since not all people considered to have a form of ASD exhibit the same behaviors.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is diagnosed in children with problems in social behaviors and language barriers
Virtual reality has introduced many new opportunities for those with an autism spectrum disorder. This new technology has provided therapeutical benefits as well as lifestyle assistance, such as being able to get jobs and go through a typical interview process. Results from studies have shown that young adults with ASD have a very high unemployment rate. This is due to the fear and anxiety that presents itself when someone with a form of autism is under the pressure of in-person interaction.

Extensive research on this topic is being studied, and what kind of effects virtual reality would have on short-term and long-term social behaviors of people with ASD. Many scientists are using virtual technology to identify and improve cognition in social environments. Brain scans are being used to detect areas of the human brain that are being stimulated, looking at results from before and after the use of virtual reality with ASD patients. 
  • Virtual reality allows for social skills training and improvement
Virtual reality is not only used for healing or professional purposes such as described above; it can also be used for recreation and educational tactics. Depending on what it is being used for, people may have different perspectives as to what benefits this new technology has. Differing opinions may come to play about whether or not virtual reality would truly improve social or behavioral skills in patients diagnosed with ASD.

A study was conducted to test the effects of virtual reality on detecting social cues in preschool aged children diagnosed with ASD. The reason for examining patients at such a young age is because the inability to recognize external visual stimuli, a symptom of ASD, in early life may be a large factor in developing the core behavioral and social problems that come later in life with this disorder.
  • An eye-tracking device was used to locate directional cues and movement to facial expressions on a computer
The Virtual Buddy system, along with an ISCAN eye movement tracker, was positioned inside a children's helicopter ride, where the child sat in a car seat looking at a screen in front of them. The ride was designed to limit all other external stimuli so both the control group, which consisted of typically developing (TD) children, and the group with ASD would only focus on the screen in front of them. The toddlers in the study were considered to be atypically developing. Facial expressions were shown on the screen and the child was rewarded when he or she would look at the eyes or general facial region of the face on the screen.
  • Children diagnosed with ASD and typically developing children had similar behavioral reactions to the 'Virtual Buddy' system
The results of this study consist solely of observations of both the TD and ASD groups, and how the children with ASD behaved differently or comparably to the control, TD, group. Some ASD patients presented difficulties with the helicopter ride, since they were hesitant in sitting in the ride to begin with. Those who were cooperative and sat in the ride throughout the study, were found to have positive results. The children with ASD, of those that persisted through the research, had related attentiveness and visual movements of TD children.

Another study was conducted that analyzed the effects of virtual reality with teenage ASD patients, grouped into categories based upon age, gender, and verbal and performance IQ's. A virtual environment on a computer was used for the participants to complete different tasks within a virtual cafe. These three tasks involved searching for an object and maneuvering through open and confined spaces. 

Figure 1. Mean amount of time it took for ASD patients to complete
tasks in a virtual reality environment (Parsons, Mitchell, Leonard).
According to the data plotted on the line graph, the time for all three tasks decreased as more trials were conducted. The search task still seemed to take the longest for ASD participants to solve, but gradually became much more efficient in completing that stage.

With improvement in time after the multiple trials, this shows that with repeated use of virtual reality, patients with ASD have the capability to perform tasks at a faster and productive pace. Overall, this could indicate a positive impact on social interactivity in ASD patients, creating a more comfortable environment in public spaces, such as eating out at a restaurant or going to see a movie at a theatre.

The teenagers with ASD were also tested on their communication, interaction, and navigation skills, along with any errors throughout the processes, within the virtual environment. Based on the results, the study supports the idea that virtual reality can provide beneficial therapy towards those diagnosed with ASD. Social interactivity and behaviors can begin to improve in people that may have trouble communicating in public or following social norms.

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