Will Virtual Reality Training Build Social Cognition?

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Social impairments are often one of the most challenging aspects of transitioning into adulthood for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Many of these impairments restrict individuals from building relationships, participating in social environments, and integrating into the community.

Could virtual reality programs really help these individuals improve their social function? This is the question that Dr. Yang addressed in recent study by asking autistic participants to interact in virtual social environments. Each individual spent an hour inside of a virtual world twice a week. During this time, they were asked to interact with a webcam recording and translating their facial expressions into a virtual landscape. During the session, they would interact with avatars that were animated by their autism therapist.

Participants were also provided with relevant situations such as job interviews, going on a date, or interacting with a new neighbor. Frequently, the therapists worked to help participants recognize an unspoken intention behind an avatar’s behavior or encourage them to communicate their own emotions and feelings in a socially acceptable manner.

The virtual realties used for this type of coaching and education are still in developmental stages, but researchers are pleased with the initial results. Dr. Yang reported “early results are beginning to reveal a remarkable degree of malleability in the neural systems involved in social cognition in adults with ASD.” Overall, new neural pathways were engaged to better social understanding and social skills building.

More information on Dr. Yang’s study can be found here.

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