One in 68 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There has been a 600 percent increase in autism prevalence in the past two decades. As the fastest growing developmental disability with an annual growth rate of 10-17%, the symptoms of autism vary from individual to individual. Individuals with autistic disorder are often poorly understood by others because of impaired “social cognition,” which means they have difficulty observing social rules, participating in social routines, or understanding and expressing emotions. People with autistic disorders tend to have trouble with social interaction and communication and a limited repertoire of activities and interests, and about one out of 10 of those with autism possess extraordinary skills in the areas of music, art, mathematics, or memory.
Scientists at the Center for BrainHealth are examining ways to improve life-enhancing social cognition skills in a host of populations, including those with autism disorders and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Center researchers clinically evaluate the ability to strengthen or repair social brain networks in the aforementioned groups, impacting social behavior involved in complex social interactions absolutely vital for success in life.
Since 2008, researchers at the Center for BrainHealth have been investigating how virtual reality social skills training provides dynamic and realistic opportunities for social success. In each session, participants are immersed into a live, interactive coaching session designed to stimulate social-cognitive reasoning skills all the while using a cutting-edge virtual reality platform which includes dynamic face-tracking technology.
Why Virtual Reality?
- The virtual reality technology used is a promising tool that provides a safe, inviting and effective platform for improving social skills, cognition, and functioning for those on the autism spectrum. Source: Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders
- Traditional role-play therapy is limited by a lack of realism as the clinician’s appearance and location are fixed. Virtual reality allows for changeable identities and adaptable surroundings which help create limitless scenarios.
Measuring Social Brain Change
- Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques help to identify biomarkers and social-cognitive systems of change as a result of treatment that can further the understanding of how to maximize a person’s social potential.
- According to Center for BrainHealth research, participants significantly improved in the ability to recognize other’s emotions, understand what someone may be thinking or feeling, as well as improve on their own social responses.
Three-month follow-up results show:
- 71 percent reported improvement in starting a conversation
- 100 percent reported improvement in maintaining a conversation
- 86 percent reported improvement in understanding other points of view
- 86 percent reported improvement in establishing relationships
The Center for BrainHealth’s research team is partnering with Yale University's Child Study Center to test the feasibility of providing the research-based training program to young adults across the country. This ongoing partnership seeks to help those on the autism spectrum achieve economic and social independence. Each study participant meets with a clinician for individualized sessions conducted using the Internet. Each session includes a nonscripted conversation that instill social brain strategies to help participants reach personal goals.