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Virtual reality technologies (VRTs) using head-mounted displays (HMDs) could help people with autism develop social skills and confidence, according to a researcher from the University of the West of England (UWE) Bristol.

Dr Nigel Newbutt, UWE’s Associate Head of Media and Digital Cultures, has investigated how virtual world platforms can help people with autism navigate social situations such as visiting a coffee shop, going to the cinema or even attending a job interview. “With as many as one in 68 reported as being diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition, there is the potential for technologies to be used and applied to many affected people”, he says.

Dr Newbutt is currently involved with a project funded by the Department for Work and Pensions which is examining how the role of innovative technologies can have a positive impact on the employment prospects of people with autism and other disabilities.

“There is a growing evidence-base that suggests many people on the autism spectrum find interaction with technology easy and, in some cases, more natural than interacting with people”, says Dr Newbutt. Computer games and virtual reality worlds that have been designed for the general public have great potential to help someone on the autistic spectrum practice to develop their social skills, he believes. Virtual simulations of events can help those with autism to build their confidence without the fear of real-life consequences.

“The first experiments using VRT technology were held decades ago but the advent of readily available and affordable head-mounted devices we are trialling have helped to enable a greater affordance for the role of technology, with a view to developing new ways of helping people to build confidence around social interaction”, says Dr Newbutt.

The research team tested the reactions of a small group of people diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition to determine their acceptance wearing an HMD, their self-reported immersion, the presence experienced using the technology, and the experience and any anxiety levels associated with the overall experience.

Dr Newbutt says: “Initial findings indicate that acceptance of wearing a HMD was positive and negative effects such as dizziness or sickness, sometimes associated with HMD use, was reported as low by the autism group.”

The next stage will investigate adapting experiences by developing a targeted intervention programme, and specific skills development, and through helping people on the autism spectrum transfer the positive virtual experiences to the real world.


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