How Virtual Reality is helping bridge the communication divide for people with autism

VR can help people empathise with those on the autistic spectrum in new and immersive ways, raising awareness and gaining support.

Chloe Green | 30th Sep 19

Empathy has always been a cornerstone of the way charities communicate. For autism-based charities, helping people understand and emphathise with the experiences of those with the condition can be complex. Autism is a spectrum condition that affects people in a broad range of ways, as every person with autism faces unique challenges around communication, social skills, learning and how they experience the world around them, according to where they lie on the spectrum.

This is where technologies such as VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality) can actually help bring conditions like autism to life. AR and VR can provide what’s called an ‘immersive’ experience – the feeling of really ‘being there’ in an environment, like never before possible.

The tools to do it are becoming more accessible all the time – even top of the range VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and 360 video cameras for making VR- films are now becoming affordable, while you can buy a headset that plugs into a smartphone for under £50 – budget VR viewers like the Google Cardboard are pocket money.

We’ve seen VR put to use in a fundraising setting, like the often-applauded charity: water fundraiser which took 400 people on a trip to East Africa at an annual black tie fundraising banquet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The film moved donors to committing over $2.4 million on the night, and it has continued to see millions of views on Facebook and YouTube.

VR has even been used by the UK’s oldest hospice, Royal Trinity Hospice, giving potential patients and their families a way to experience the grounds and facilities and helping to show them it’s a welcoming place to recieve care.

Now autism-based charities are experimenting with VR as a way to help people without autism put themselves in the shoes of people with the condition, helping raise awareness and gain support.

> See also: Five ways charities are using virtual reality


Sensory overload

Built with the input of autistic people, The National Autistic Society’s immersive experience, ‘Too much Information’ can be viewed on any phone if you have a VR headset like Google Cardboard to clip it into. The charity says that the 360 degree film has helped over 56 million people gain a deeper understanding of autism. In the film, viewers have the chance to experience how overwhelming everyday life can be for someone on the spectrum, helping them to understand behaviours they otherwise not.

By watching the film, the charity hopes people will think twice the next time they see a child who might seem to be misbehaving in public.

Not only that, but charities can now give people with autism a safe setting to tackle the challenges they face in everyday environments using these technologies.

Children’s charity Pals Society is up for a £100,000 prize towards its project using AR to help build the confidence of those on the autistic spectrum in social situtions.

The tech will mimic social events, such as a football match, to prepare those on the autistic spectrum for real life situations and teach them cope mechanisms around their anxiety. The aim is to help socially excluded and isolated young people to feel more comfortable interacting in busy, crowded environments and start to work on building the social skills that will equip them for life.


Increasing understanding

VR might seem like a novel form of ‘infotainment’ for potential supporters, but it can also help in the area of science and research. The CareTech Foundation has invested £250,000 into an initiative at the Wohl Wolfson Toddler Lab at Birkbeck, University of London.

The project will use wireless technology to study the brain development of children aged between 18 months and four-years-old, including when they are asleep and while they are taking part in games and activitities. It will use VR to recreate real-world surroundings such as shops or a farm, studying how they react.

Professor Denis Mareschal, Director of Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, said: “Increasing our understanding of how children’s brains develop could make a huge difference to how we help children flourish. Research that allows us to spot signs earlier and improve the effectiveness of interventions could be a real game changer in boosting children’s futures. At the CareTech Foundation we’re all really excited about what the research could achieve, and hugely proud to be involved.”

Tech can offer powerful ways to bring people together across all kinds of divides, and that couldn’t more true of autism and VR. This is bound to be just the beginning as over the next few years VR and AR apps become increasingly sophisticated, devices become more powerful and visuals become higher quality.