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A technology associated with fantasy worlds is helping young adults with autism in the hard reality of life.
Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas Center for BrainHealth are working with patients diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome using virtual reality training. People with the disorder have normal intelligence, but they suffer from a variety of social cognitive defects, including an inability to read nonverbal clues and adapt well to change.
These young adults -- considered to have a form of autism -- face many obstacles in life. Interviewing for a job or asking somebody for a date can be monumentally difficult.
To help them succeed, researchers from the center have created a virtual world for them to practice their social skills. Each person 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 restaurants, shops, offices, apartment living and parks, where they can meet “new” people in a safe, controlled environment. For example, if the goal is applying for a job, their avatars substitute for them as they practice their interviewing skills with real people on-line until the fear and anxiety of a real encounter with a potential supervisor diminishes. This method is distinct from role-playing, which is a widely used method, 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, virtual world experiences provide a powerful way to learn new and more appropriate ways to respond to people in scenarios similar to those faced everyday,” she said.
“Our research in brain discoveries tells us that the brain can rewire its pathways with intensive practice grounded in experience – not by learning rules of how to interact – which has been the most common therapy practice heretofore,” said Chapman. “These young adults have the advantage of an intensive, interactive therapy to deal with problems they encounter everyday but in a safe setting to practice their social skills.”
Before entering the program, the participants undergo a series of brain imaging measures and neurocognitive tests. At first, they practice with their avatars with a clinician by their sides.
Quickly, new persons/avatars are introduced to the client and they begin to interact with family members and trusted friends. 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.
“There are almost no treatment programs for older children or young adults with autism-related disorders,” said Chapman. “And yet this is a very good time to intervene because it is during adolescence that rapid brain development takes place – particularly in the areas supporting social-skill development.”
Although still in the early stages, the BrainHealth researchers say they can detect dramatic improvements with many of the participants in terms of simple awareness of their social problems, which they say is the first step to improvement.
Virtual-reality therapy has become a new tool in brain rehabilitation. Therapists are using the gaming technology for people who suffer from autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder, addictions, strokes and brain injuries.