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Virtual Reality Social Cognition Training for Children with High Functioning Autism

A happy young girl/child/kid/youth is wearing a virtual head set while sitting down in front of her laptop. iStock-1275746333

Nyaz Didehbani, Tandra Allen, Michelle Kandalaft, Daniel Krawczyk and Sandra Chapman

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This pilot study investigated the impact of Virtual Reality Social Cognition Training (VR-SCT) to determine whether it enhances the social skills of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Previous research has demonstrated the positive impact VR training can have, and how computerized simulations of reality can be particularly helpful for individuals on the spectrum. This study extended the work of Kandalaft and colleagues (2013) and hypothesized that the participants would demonstrate significant improvements on measures of social cognition, emotion recognition, and social attribution. To do this, thirty individuals ranging from 7-16 years old were recruited.  The virtual training involves simulated social encounters, allowing individuals to practice communicating with situations faced in everyday life. The simulated aspect of the training offers several benefits, including a safe environment where individuals can feel comfortable making mistakes without fearing rejection, an environment that can be catered to an individual’s needs, and a format that feels more like a game for the individuals working on their training. The training time for participants involved a 1-hour session twice per week (for 5 weeks), with data collected prior to the start of the sessions and upon completion of the 5 weeks. The novel aspect of the VR-SCT intervention in this study was that during each training session, participants were able to interact with an age-matched high functioning autistic (HFA) individual. 
VR-SCT sessions and learning objectives

Table 2 - VR-SCT sessions and learning objectives

Upon completion of training, participants demonstrated improvements on measures of emotion recognition, social attribution, and executive function including social reasoning. Overall, preliminary findings from the study suggest that VR-SCT intervention is a feasible approach to improving social skills for HFA individuals in a relatively short amount of time. Further research would be needed to determine the longer-term results from training, but initial findings are promising for VR training as an approach to social training for children and young adults on the spectrum. The dynamic, individualized approach may render the program feasible for a wider range of age spans.

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Tandra Allen, MS, CCC-SLP

Assistant Director of Research

Daniel Krawczyk, PhD

Deputy Director of Research, Center for BrainHealth Professor at UT Dallas School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences