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High technology helps kids cope with autism

Augmented and virtual reality tools can help children with autism better recognize emotions and deal with phobias.

Augmented and virtual reality can help children with autism better recognize emotions and deal with phobias

This is the Blue Room which has been shown to help people with autism overcome their fears and phobias. (Third Eye NeuroTech and Newcastle University)

A number of high-tech devices usually devoted to gaming are helping people with autism deal with phobias, social interactions and even recognize emotions in people's faces.  

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological condition that affects children and adults, producing difficulties with communication, reading emotions in others, social interactions. It also often involves repetitive activities. These behaviours make it difficult for people with ASD to cope with everyday life. The cause of ASD is unknown, and effective therapy is challenging because every individual is affected differently and it can be challenging to access those resources.

Now digital technology is being applied in a number of different ways to augment traditional therapies. This week on Quirks & Quarks, you can hear about augmented reality glasses equipped with a camera and facial recognition program in an accompanying phone app that informs the wearer of the emotional cues the person they are looking at is expressing in their face.

Alex was one of he children who took part in a pilot study in which a smartphone app paired with Google Glass was shown to help children with autism understand emotions conveyed in facial expressions. (Steve Fisch Photography)

Virtual reality room to treat phobias

Another group at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom is using virtual reality in what they call the "Blue Room" to treat phobias.

The idea is to expose young people with autism to social situations that would normally make them uncomfortable, in a safe, controlled environment. The walls of the cube-shaped room are projection screens where 360-degree computerized images can be created that are personalized to the individual. So the room can become a bus stop, a shopping mall, airport or any environment that would normally intimidate the child.

This is an external shot of the Blue Room with a young person waiting to start their scenario. (Third Eye NeuroTech and Newcastle University)

Sitting calmly in a couch in the middle of the room beside a therapist, the child can explore the environment three dimensionally using an iPad controller at whatever pace he or she chooses. Once the child is comfortable in the virtual space, other elements, such as people, dogs, balloons, wasps, or whatever would normally seem scary to them, can be added in a non-threatening manner.

Before the VR sessions, the child and their parent would meet with the therapist for 45 minutes to learn how to identify their feelings and to use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques to help them cope through their VR sessions. Those VR sessions then lasted 20 minutes and were done two at at time with a 15 minute break between them.   

Results of the 'Blue Room' studies

The results have been encouraging. In preliminary trials, the scientists found that 40 per cent of children showed improvement after two weeks of Blue Room therapy and 45 per cent after six months.

In one case, a child had a fear of dogs and would run away in hysteria if an animal approached, but after being exposed to a variety of scenes involving dogs in different situations within the Blue Room, the child not only overcame his fears, but now has a pet dog of his own.

There was one case where the Blue Room had the reverse effect, so the technique is not for everyone. But when they tested it on adults, they found the technique proved to be effective in five out of eight adults with autism.

Approximately 25 per cent of children with autism suffer phobias, whether it be crowds of strangers, walking through doors or fear of the dark, apprehensions that can make the world a scary place. Now it looks like virtual worlds can temper those phobias.

Real world tweaks can also help those with autism

Meanwhile, subtle changes in the real world can help as well, such as actions taken by Sobeys' grocery stores in Nova Scotia.

(TZIDO SUN/Shutterstock)

Once every other week, for an hour at a time, the lights in the stores are dimmed, music is turned off and employees do not stack noisy shopping carts. This is to provide a calmer atmosphere, so people with autism who are sensitive to loud sounds and bright lights can do their shopping in comfort.

The world can be a scary place, no matter who you are. But for those with autism, through no fault of their own, the fear factor can be higher, sometimes in a debilitating way. Technology can help reduce those fears. So can simple adjustments to common environments.

About the Author

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.