Video games as therapy? While most virtual reality falls under the category of mindless entertainment, a group of researchers believe the gaming world may offer some benefit to those on the autism spectrum.
A team comprised of cognitive neuroscientists and gaming technology experts created a game with potential therapeutic applications, as part of an ongoing research effort at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas. The virtual-reality program aims to help individuals with autism spectrum disorder, Asperger's, traumatic brain injury and other conditions that limit social cognition skills.
"Practicing social interaction in a safe, non-threatening, gaming environment helps people reduce anxiety and gain the confidence and skills they need to attempt more social interactions in their daily lives," Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, the center's founder and chief director, said in an email to The Huffington Post.
Using high-tech graphics, customized avatars, and real-time face tracking, the games provide users the opportunity to practice engaging in realistic social situations like job interviews, confrontations with neighbors or even dates -- scenarios that are often vexing for individuals with an autism spectrum or anxiety disorder.
By engaging in non-scripted virtual conversations, users can reinforce lessons in social perception and deciphering facial expressions.
Tandra Allen M.D., the project's lead clinician, has seen significant progress among the project's early users. In as little as five weeks, participants’ scores can significantly improve in the domains of emotional recognition and in the ability to understand and respond to what others are thinking.
"[Participants] have told me that the training improves their conversation skills and has helped them make friends," Allen said in an email to The Huffington Post. "Parents of children have expressed that they see their child have a better understanding of quality of relationships following the program (knowing who is a good friend versus a bully). Their child also has the ability to self regulate his/her emotions, instead of becoming overwhelmed and breaking down in a classroom; they can recognize when they become frustrated and handle their emotions in a positive manner."
Carly McCullar, a 32-year-old who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder as an adult and participated in the program, said that after a period of practice, the games began to feel surprisingly real.
"You know it is an alternate reality, but you feel the same emotions you would feel in the actual situation you are practicing," McCullar told Mashable.
Chapman explained that the virtual-reality program is comparable to traditional role-play therapy, in which patients practice various social interactions with a clinician. The virtual-reality scenarios, of course, have the advantage of being able to alter the appearance of the setting and "characters" to make the role-play feel more realistic. The researchers envision the program as a complementary approach, filling in the gaps in traditional therapy, rather than replacing it.
"Individuals with autism are often familiar with video-game platforms and are therefore motivated to practice in such an immersive and engaging environment," Allen explained. "The virtual training is meant to offer a program when there is often a gap in traditional therapy, at a critical time in development -– adolescence and young adulthood –- as well as provide high-level cognitive training that can continue to foster independent growth and living.”
And with the growing field of telehealth gaining legitimacy in the medical community, video-game therapy is something we could be seeing more of in the future.
"As we become a more technologically interactive and social-media based society," Allen said. "Utilizing gaming and virtual technology will become much easier and access to services will be more readily available."