Unravelling the mysteries of autism using a virtual reality game

February 1, 2018

By Lissa Cowan

Tal Jarus received a Wall Solutions Initiative award to develop a novel virtual reality game that can potentially enhance the way children with autism communicate.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication. Children with ASD have difficulty picking up on facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice, which can make it especially challenging to communicate with others and to make their feelings known. According to Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy organization based in the U.S., one in 68 children are currently diagnosed with ASD, and it’s also one of the fastest growing and most commonly diagnosed neurological disorders in Canada.

Creating tools to help children with ASD learn about social situations

Tal Jarus

Professor Tal Jarus of UBC’s Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy.

“With this program I’m interested in improving the social and emotional skills of children with ASD,” said Jarus, professor in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. Jarus and her research team are partnering with Sunny Hill Health Centre for Children, BC Children’s Hospital and other clinicians, along with virtual-reality gaming programmers and artists, and UBC researchers to develop a low-cost virtual reality platform to complement existing health services. It is their hope that the game’s ability to be played at home by parents and children and monitored remotely by clinicians will accentuate its ease of use and its relevance in a range of day-to-day situations involving children with ASD.

“The virtual reality game is activated by voice and movement rather than through touch like most of today’s computer-based programs,” said Jarus. “Touch-less systems enable interacting via natural ways in a simulated environment and may help develop transferable skills.” Among clinicians and parents alike, ASD diagnosis is often met with questions about how best to interact effectively with children who have the disorder.

“Most children with ASD have difficulties in social interactions and their parents would like to have better communication and connection with them,” said Parisa Ghanouni, a PhD candidate in the Rehabilitation Sciences program at UBC, who is working with Jarus to develop the virtual reality game. Using integrated knowledge translation, the researchers have consulted more than 60 stakeholders—including youth with ASD, their parents, and clinicians—as an expert panel, to create and validate a bank of scenarios that can be used with children to practice real-life social situations in a safe learning environment.

For example, in one scenario, the avatar (child) wants to see a movie, the parent says no and explains why. The child becomes upset and angry because s/he doesn’t understand the parent’s reasons for saying no. In this scenario (as with others), the parent would go through the situation and ask the child (or player) what emotion the avatar in the game is feeling. Feedback is given on what emotion is appropriate based on the situation, and each scenario is followed by an action item viewed as a teaching moment.

“Behind all of my projects is the belief that everyone has the right to participate in meaningful occupations and activities”

In round one of the validation process the project team asked the expert panel to rate their level of agreement on whether the scenarios developed represented situations that a child with ASD would have difficulty understanding or responding to appropriately. In round two the panel was asked whether they agreed with the scenario’s depicted emotions and intensity level.

Input from the expert panel was incorporated into the scenarios. For example, using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques with the child, or calming strategies such as asking the child to take three deep breaths when they felt anxious.

“These scenarios help parents to identify which emotional skills are challenging for their child and which ones may require more practice,” said Jarus, adding that the expert panel helped to ensure that the game maintains a user-centred approach. The research team is finalising the game package with validated scenarios and will soon begin trying it out with about 20 children with ASD across the province. The focus on making sure that the program meets the needs of end users is first and foremost.

“Behind all of my projects is the belief that everyone has the right to participate in meaningful occupations and activities,” said Jarus. “Our world is facing serious problems that affect the occupational performance of many people through violence, wars, chronic diseases, unemployment, poverty, and lack of acceptance and tolerance toward groups of people who differ from us.”

The Wall Solutions Initiative focuses on providing innovative solutions to society’s most pressing issues. Developing a virtual reality game to advance social and emotional skills among children with ASD has the potential to contribute significantly to unravelling the mysteries of autism, and to inspire learning for both the children and for those who love and care for them.

Wall Solutions

The Wall Solutions Initiative provides opportunities for UBC researchers, community organizations and partners to work collaboratively towards solutions. The fundamental aim of the Initiative is to harness high-level research to the practical needs of local, national or international community partners.