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Virtual-reality technology allows us to understand autism better

| September 5, 2017 | 0 Comments

Much of the research done into autism has hitherto focused on social cognition, also known as the psychology of human interaction. This kind of analysis, say authors and scientists Nathan Caruana and Jon Brock (both postdoctoral research fellows and lecturers in the cognitive science department at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia), is now moving to the next level to allow scientists to understand the complexities of the autism spectrum.

“We need tests that allow us to precisely measure behaviour in complex, reciprocal social interactions. To achieve this goal, we and others are investigating the use of virtual-reality technology as a tool for research and, potentially, therapy,” said the authors in Spectrum magazine earlier this year. The two are building on “second person neuroscience” and the work done by Leonhard Schilbach, now at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany.

Using this approach, behaviour and brain responses are measured while people engage socially with each other. The interaction takes place between someone on the autism spectrum and someone who is not. “Joint attention” on an object or location of interest during the social interaction is one of the key indicators of autism. Say Caruana and Brock, such investigations are difficult because the results are not consistent. A smile or a raised eyebrow can change the social interaction completely. “To address these issues, our research allows autistic participants to interact with an animated virtual character called Alan, whose face appears in the centre of a computer screen.

We use an eye tracker to see where on the screen the participant is looking, and programme Alan to respond to her eye movements. This gives us complete control over the interaction.” Caruana and Brock say that their next step is to “use fully immersive virtual-reality headsets to recreate more realistic social interactions, in which individuals must evaluate multiple social cues at once, including eye gaze, head orientation, hand gestures, speech and facial expressions.

“We, among others, are also considering clinical applications of new immersive virtual-reality technologies. Virtual simulations could perhaps be used for social skills training in which elements of a social interaction are introduced gradually. Virtual meeting spaces could also allow people with and without autism to interact in a safe and controlled environment that reduces anxiety and sensory overload.”


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