The prevalence of autism spectrum disorders has been steadily rising. About 1% of the world population has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Neuroscience researchers at Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy organization in the United States, are experimenting with virtual reality headsets, which have been shown to help people with social attention problems. Users strap on the headsets and can witness a number of social interactions, such as a job interview, as well as body language, gaining exposure to new situations to further their communication skills.
"Virtual reality and avatar-based programs may be especially promising for people with autism who are uncomfortable in social interactions where subtle social cues are important," said Daniel Smith, senior director at Autism Speaks.
In trials, researchers used four adults between ages 18 and 35. They used brain imaging and brain-wave monitoring while users were engaged in a VR session. The results showed that participants' brain regions associated with social understanding lit up in ways they hadn't before.
"Our early results are beginning to reveal a remarkable degree of malleability in the neural systems involved in social cognition in adults with ASD," said Dr. Daniel Yang, an Autism Speaks Meixner postdoctoral fellow.
The future looks bright for the growing body of VR research.
"The real progress that virtual reality will enable lies in the hands of the researchers, clinicians, educators and the motivated members of the autism community including parents, siblings and friends of individuals with autism," said Fred Shic, assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine's Child Study Center and director of the Yale Autism Program.