BLOG: Augmented reality can aid the development and behavioural therapy of children with autism

Autism spectrum disorder, more commonly known as autism, is a behavioural condition that affects around 25 million people worldwide. Characteristic symptoms of autism include difficulties with social interaction and communication, which often makes growing up very tough for children with autism and their families. Many aspects of life that we take for granted, such as understanding social cues, are challenging for those with autism. Therapy is the prevalent method for helping children with autism, and augmented reality (AR) is becoming a key component of this.

As the name suggests, AR enhances the world around us by superimposing computer-generated images onto live views of the surrounding environment.[1] You may be wondering how this is related to autism. Well, there are numerous applications of AR which can aid a large range of symptoms.[2] For example, something that autistic people struggle with is making eye contact, an important facet of body language.[3] An American company, Brain Power, has developed a game that uses ‘smart glasses’, in conjunction with a screen displaying a video feed of the room, to reward players for making eye contact. The user wears the glasses, sits opposite another player and, on the screen, the environment changes. As the game progresses, the player gains points for making eye contact. By practicing eye contact in this relaxed environment, the player should then be more comfortable with transferring this skill to the  real world.

In a similar fashion, AR can help children with autism understand facial expressions and emotions, both in themselves and others. Normally, this is a complex task for these children, but therapy with AR can drastically improve their understanding of emotions. One study,[4] conducted by the National Cheng Kung University, involved going through emotional scenarios and the child wearing a corresponding mask displaying the appropriate emotion. When the mask was worn, a virtual head was overlaid onto the participants face on the screen with the correct facial expression. Thus, the child was able to see which facial expression to use in a similar scenario. Children that received this treatment became better at expressing their emotions and their social skills improved.

The importance of these therapies, with the help of AR, should not be underestimated. The unemployment gap for people with autism is very high, with only 16% in full-time paid work.[5] Interviews become very stressful and difficult when one cannot pick up on social cues or express their own emotions.[6] This is especially unfortunate because there is a large discrepancy between the employment rate and number of autistic people who wish to find work.[7] Autistic people have certain characteristics that are very desirable in the workplace, such as a keen eye for detail. By providing them with AR-boosted therapy, they can develop their social skills and flourish.

You may be familiar with virtual reality (VR), which replaces reality with a computer-generated simulation. It’s a common misconception that VR is a strictly better form of AR. VR has helped some people with autism but, for more severe cases, it hasn’t been shown to work. VR replaces the real world with a completely different world, and for some users of VR-assisted therapy it is too difficult to abstract the lessons learned in the virtual world and apply them to the real world.[8] AR, with its hybrid of reality and virtual images, is more beneficial for a wider range of people as it makes it is easier to understand the context of the therapy in real world scenarios. Furthermore, because VR completely replaces the world around us, it can be very disorienting for people both with and without autism.[9] VR has yet to be proven safe for use with children,[10] in both commercial and medical applications, with the effect on vision and balance particularly under scrutiny. When all the above is considered, AR can be viewed as a safer, more effective tool for behavioural therapy than VR.

As the research shows, AR is not limited to fun applications in entertainment, it is also a legitimate tool in behavioural therapy for children with autism. The improved social skills and communication resulting from this treatment can help the children to go about their daily lives with greater ease, allowing them to focus on other tasks like education. After all, shouldn’t everyone be allowed to fulfill their potential?

References

  1. The Ultimate Augmented Reality Technology Guide, Accessed 2 December 2017.
  2. Augmented Reality Can Help Children With Autism Tap Into Their Imaginations, Accessed 3 December 2017.
  3. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Accessed 2 December 2017.
  4. C. Chen, I. Lee and L. Lin, Augmented reality-based self-facial modeling to promote the emotional expression and social skills of adolescents with autism spectrum disorders, Research in Developmental Disabilities, 1 Jan 2015, Volume 36, pp. 396-403.
  5. 10 things that make it hard for someone with autism to get employment, 2 December 2017.
  6. Why is it so hard for someone with autism to make eye contact?, Accessed 3 December 2017.
  7. Autism employment gap - NAS, Accessed 3 December 2017.
  8. A Kinect-based Augmented Reality System for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Page 1. Accessed 3 December 2017.
  9. B. Mason, Virtual reality has a motion sickness problem, Science News, 7 March 2017.
  10. E. Gent, Are Virtual Reality Headsets Safe for Children?, Scientific American, 4 October 2016.

About the Author

Student, University College London

UCL Computer Science Student

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