Virtual reality helping those with developmental disabilities

How VR is making autistic individuals more independent
Virtual Reality is benefiting autistic children
Posted at 8:38 AM, May 13, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-13 13:34:20-04

EAGLE, IDAHO — If you think modern day virtual reality is just for gaming, think again. New technology is helping those with developmental disabilities do more than ever before, and much of that can be found right in their own backyard.

You might remember VR1, the virtual reality arcade that was featured as a Made in Idaho piece a few weeks ago. You might not know that VR1 caters to everyone and anyone and isn't just for hardcore gamers.

"I'm the proud father of a 10-year old son with autism, and we came down to VR1 simply out of curiosity," said Autism XR Institute Co-Founder Mitchell Alexander.

Mitch's son, Nathan, has had problems all his life with socializing and other everyday tasks that most of us take for granted. Traveling had been an issue, as Nathan had never been on an airplane.

"My wife and I were apprehensive about the isolation and what could happen if it were to go wrong," said Alexander.

But Nathan took a liking to Virtual Reality at VR1 where he has traveled the world from a bird's eye view on Google Maps or simulated flying on Youtube. After months of simulations, the family finally bought their plane tickets to see Nathan's Aunt.

"His excitement was so incredible--getting ready, walking down the runways, going through security. [He] sat down, plane got ready to take off, we got in the air, he looked out the window and turned around and said 'Daddy, it looks just like VR1.' And from there, it was just so positive," said Alexander.

Nathan is just one of the many individuals that is making positive strides in their lives, something the owner of VR1 sees often.

"We do something called Exposure Therapy, and that carries over to people that have a fear of spiders, fear of heights, and then specifically all the kids with autism," said VR1 Owner and Operator Brendan Smythe.

Smythe says Nathan and several other autistic individuals all loved virtual reality from the get-go, with nothing but positive experiences.

"The autistic mind as it is has a fascination with technology and, as we've seen in the past, they're some of the best creators, designers, game developers--have some sort of autism," said Smythe.

For Nathan, it started with travel and movie simulators, which helped him get on an airplane for the first time. But since then, he's continued expanding into other everyday situations, like socializing and problem solving.

"That now has evolved into him playing something like Budget Cuts, which is a game where an enemy or bad guy can come and interact with you--which can be very fearful--and he's responding to that and he's defending himself and going through this maze and unlocking new doors. I don't think he would have gotten into a game like that right off the bat. This is something he's gotten more comfortable with," said Smythe.

VR has many of the same effects that hours of specialized therapies could provide for autistic individuals, all while making them feel like they're simply playing a game. Sometimes therapy or, more commonly, everyday situations can cause sensory overload, but despite how advanced virtual reality is, it seems to do the opposite.

"We see a calming effect when he comes out of virtual reality. Even while he still has the headset on, he's kneeling down or even laid down in the booth. And coming out, he's much more relaxed, almost to the tune of him being exhausted and needing a nap," said Alexander.

And it doesn't end there.

"I see unlimited potential inside of their minds. I see us being able to unlock a certain person who can achieve things that we never thought could be done, and all of this could happen off of just exposing them to virtual reality," said Smythe.

VR1 and the Autism XR Institute are constantly creating tools and ideas to help kids and adults with autism live a more independent life through virtual reality.

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