Researchers use virtual simulations to improve social skills in adults with autism

A medical school professor is using virtual simulations to help adults with autism improve their social skills.

The study, published by researchers at GW, Yale University and the University of Texas at Dallas last month, found that virtual learning programs can simulate changes in the brain for young adults on the autism spectrum, allowing them to more easily interpret emotion and identify social cues.

Daniel Yang, an assistant research professor of pediatrics, said the research allowed adults on the autism spectrum to use digital tools to practice social interactions at their own pace and without the anxiety of making a mistake in person.

About 120 people all on the autism spectrum interacted with virtual avatars for a total of 10 hours over five weeks to practice everyday activities, like interviewing or dating.

The study found the virtual interactions produced brain changes in the participants of the study allowing them to more easily interpret and respond to emotions – which Yang said was a significant finding because there has been a common perception that the brains of adults with autism cannot significantly improve.

“These are all very encouraging and challenging the very notion that their brain is fixed,” Yang said.

People on the autism spectrum often have a more difficult time communicating and recognizing social behaviors that are evident to others, he said.

Yang said the study was “a novel combination” between neuroscience and behavior intervention, claiming that this research has not been done before in the field.

Five years ago, he reached out to the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas to collaborate on autism research. The team was curious about how virtual social interactions could help adults with autism – an area of study where research is lacking, he said.

Yang applied for and later received a grant from Autism Speaks – an advocacy group that funds autism research – to support the project.

Tandra Allen, the head of the virtual training programs for the Center for BrainHealth, who helped develop the virtual trainings for the study, said the sessions were held at both the Center for BrainHealth in Texas and the Yale Child Study Center.

“We wanted to gather brain-imaging data that would help us understand more of the social-cognitive brain network that was involved with improved social perception in adults with autism,” Allen said in an email.

Allen said the study helped break new ground because researchers often don’t study autism in adults.

Participants improved their ability to pick up on nuanced social cues – like facial expressions –throughout the study, she said.

The team tested the participants’ social skills before and after receiving virtual training. Allen said one of the most significant findings from the study was identifying a shift in the participants focus away from non-social information, which is fact-based details and “considered to be one of the most disabling aspects for those on the spectrum.”

Throughout the training, participants received feedback about their skills and how to improve them, she said.

“We knew that participants were improving in their social perception skills, but for the first time we now know how the process is taking place at the brain-level,” she said. “That, to me, is a big surprise.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.