7 Ways Augmented Reality Can Impact Autism Spectrum Disorder

We’re often asked if and how augmented reality (AR) can be used to help patients who have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis. ASD is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior and often appears within the first two years of life. Symptoms can include difficulty with communication and social interaction with others, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors. AR is a technology where digital information (images, audio, text) is superimposed on the real world, either with mobile devices or headsets and glasses. AR is emerging as a promising technology to help those with ASD understand tasks and the world more fully by bridging the physical and digital worlds. We’ve done some digging into the impact of AR on ASD and research shows to be positive in a variety of situations. AR can encourage play and improve language, communication, emotion identification, and vocabulary. Results also indicate benefits like increased motivation, attention, and the learning of new tasks.

Brain Power using AR to help those with autism to better connect to the world around them. Credit: Rob Michaelson

Brain Power using AR to help those with autism to better connect to the world around them. Credit: Rob Michaelson

1) AR Can Increase Attention and Positive Emotion

A variety of AR-based apps have been used to enhance engagement, motivation, and learning for people with ASD. AR overlays like 3D videos, figures, and information can be added to anything and multiple studies have shown that these AR experiences result in increased engagement, enjoyment, motivation, and attention. One particular study designed to teach object discrimination revealed a 62% increase in on-task participation and happier, more determined students. A new Google Glass-based AR and artificial-intelligence app motivates and rewards users for social and cognitive learning.

2) AR Can Increase Social Interaction

An AR app called MOSOCO was developed for public schools in California to help children with ASD practice social skills like eye contact, initiating interaction, asking questions, and sharing interests with their peers. The app allows for users to pair up together and then supports them through each step of the interaction exercise. Students reported that the app was fun, engaging, and had notable teaching ability. The overall number of interactions increased, both between students with ASD and students without ASD.

3) AR Can Teach Facial Expressions

A research study delved into whether AR could allow adolescents with ASD to more readily recognize emotional expression. 3D facial models of each participant were made to use as AR overlay “masks” and each were digitally altered to showcase common facial expressions. Participants were told a short story with illustrations that highlighted one specific emotion and then were asked to select the appropriate emotion mask. Using an AR mirror system, this virtual mask would then appear over the participant’s face to reinforce the emotion being described. The research concluded that the AR system raised awareness of facial emotions and increased sustained and selective attention while parents of participants reported improvements in social skills and attempts at expressing feelings.

4) AR Can Teach Nonverbal Social Cues

An AR app was developed for a study to highlight the nonverbal social cues within a story book. Each social cue depicted was overlaid with a supplemental video for the children to focus on. After the AR intervention, all the participant scores increased significantly from the baseline phase of the study. The kids were very interested in the AR video and demonstrated greater ability to differentiate between facial expressions.

5) AR Can Teach Vocabulary

Sets of science vocabulary words were created with AR content to help teach students with ASD and intellectual disabilities. The content included video, audio of definitions, labeled pictures and figures, and 3D simulations. The study was found to be highly effective for all participants and the particular student with ASD learned all the words in a relatively short time frame with immediate improvement.

The AR system designed by Zhen Bai to help children with pretend play. Photo: Graphics & Interaction Group/University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory

The AR system designed by Zhen Bai to help children with pretend play. Photo: Graphics & Interaction Group/University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory

6) AR Can Help with Imaginative Play

Researchers used an AR system with foam blocks and a TV screen that acted as a mirror in order to facilitate pretend play. The foam blocks transformed into a 3D car, train, or airplane on the screen and the kids could see themselves playing with the items as toys. Results showed a significant increase in imaginative play frequency and duration with the AR scenario and a video analysis revealed the children engaged in over 50% more pretend play scenarios per minute than without.

7) AR Can Teach a New Task

A study was executed for children where a five-step picture schedule of a toothbrushing task was augmented with a video clip demonstrating all the steps. After treatment, the AR intervention showed an immediate increase in independent performance by the participants, and after two months, completion of the task remained high. The kids enjoyed the AR content and the teachers reported the app to be an effective teaching tool.

Why is AR so effective for ASD?

AR allows for interaction with the real world which makes it easier to generalize real-life situations through digital content. The immersive, visual nature of AR capitalizes on a strength largely held by people with ASD and produces more curiosity and engagement. Introducing new technology can also be highly motivating, creating a more in-depth learning experience. In addition, AR can be easily adapted to supplement evidence-based practices such as picture prompting and video modeling that are currently being used by clinicians.

With AR technology being relatively new, its usage within healthcare, and particularly the realm of ASD, is still preliminary. Even so, studies show that the simple addition of an AR element to current therapies can increase motivation, attention, and focus. These highlighted outcomes just scrape the surface of the potential of AR-based interventions and the outlook is promising for future clinical use.

Rachel MartindaleComment