Virtual Reality for Autism

About 1 in 88 children suffer with autism and more than a half a million people have autism or some form of the disorder. These people have difficulty interacting with others and expressing emotion. Now, a new virtual reality program could help.

Barry Thomas loves playing on the computer. Barry has autism and has trouble with social interaction.

"Barry still doesn't really enjoy eye contact. He's still not very comfortable," says Annie Thomas Barry’s Mother.

Autism impacts an area of the brain responsible for social interaction and communication skills making it difficult to relate to others.

"They cannot recognize the facial expressions of other people," says Professor Nilanjan Sarkar, Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University are developing a virtual reality computer program they hope will help.

"They showed us a face and situation and I basically had to guess the emotion," explains Barry Thomas.

Doctors can create characters that show certain emotions and situations and then monitor where the patient is having difficulty with recognizing that emotional expression.

"We want to measure the child's reaction to these things, how do you measure through child's ideas, and their body's signals; physiological signals," says Professor Nilanjan Sarkar.

The hope is to help children and adults with autism learn emotion by improving eye contact and social engagement.

"Slowly and very incrementally change their demeanor; change their facial expression to get him exposed to other types of interaction," explains Professor Nilanjan Sarkar.

Barry's social interaction is improving, which will help him focus on his dream of being a computer programmer.

Virtual Reality for Autism
REPORT #2008

BACKGROUND: Autism is a general term for a group of complex developmental disorders, and is generally understood to be a spectrum disorder. This means that there are varying degrees of the disorder and there isn't one clear set of symptoms or afflictions for everyone. Autism generally affects a child's social interaction, speech and learning development, and emotional intelligence. Many children with autism have issues with motor coordination, and can also develop gastrointestinal problems. Some with autism can work and live independently, while others can be completely homebound and dependent. (Source:

CAUSES: Just as there is no one kind of autism, there is no one cause of the disorder. Research now shows autism can be the result of a variety of problems. There are many small genetic mutations which can lead to autism by themselves. However, there are also a variety of environmental issues which can potentially lead to autism. Some of these include the ages of the parents, illnesses affecting the mother during pregnancy, and complications during birth such as prolonged oxygen deprivation. None of these factors are believed to be directly the cause of autism, but rather members of a variety of factors which eventually lead to the disorder. (Source:

SYMPTOMS: The signs of autism include a variety of problems in three areas of development - social interaction, language, and behavior. Symptoms can present at different times, with some manifesting as early as infancy and others not appearing until the first few years of life. Common autism symptoms are:
* Poor eye contact
* Resists cuddling or holding
* Delayed speech or doesn't talk at all
* Develops specific routines or rituals
* Does not engage in make-believe play

TREATMENT: There is no cure for autism, but there are treatments to help reduce the symptoms. The primary treatments are behavior and communication therapies, educational therapies, family therapies, and medications. Behavior and communication therapies as well as educational therapies focus on teaching autistic individuals how to act in social situations, communicate with other people, and try to improve their overall behavior. Family therapy is also geared towards teaching people with autism important social skills, but this is done by family involvement rather than with professionals. There are also several alternative therapies designed to help with autism symptoms, such as special diets like the GAPS diet, sensory based therapies, and acupuncture. (Source:

For More Information, Contact:

Craig Boerner, Media Director
Vanderbilt University Medical Center
(615) 322-4747

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