Autism affects people differently, but certain traits tend to appear, like challenges with social skills, verbal and non-verbal communication, attention, and so on. Depending on the person, autism can manifest very mildly or raise significant barriers. Ever since the 1990’s, researchers and therapists have been investigating virtual reality. Could simulations of the real world help people with autism?
VR has been used frequently to help prep autistic people (specifically children) for things they find stressful. It’s essentially exposure therapy, but in a very safe, controlled environment. Fears of things like animals, classrooms, and more have been addressed in the realm of VR. Despite researcher’s fairly early exploration of VR, it hasn’t actually been tested very often. Cost is a big reason why, so hopefully as the tech becomes more common, the price will go down.
VR hasn’t only been used as therapy, however. It’s been harnessed to give neurotypical people a glimpse into the mind of someone with autism. In 2018, Matt Clark presented a VR experience at the Victoria and Albert Museum (London) called “Beholder.” It represented how Clark’s 15-year autistic son saw the world. Of course, since Matt himself is not autistic, people have questioned how it’s possible to create VR simulations that truly represent autism. If nothing else, these experiences draw attention to the technology and what’s possible.
To be most effective, creators in the VR field need to work with autistic people and ask them what they’re hoping VR could do. This won’t be easy with people with severe communication issues (like Clark’s son, who is nonverbal), but autism is a wide spectrum. The point is that neurotypical people designing VR experiences can’t rely solely on what they think the field of autism studies needs; it needs to be tailored to the actual desires of the people it seeks to serve.