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Virtual-reality therapy may help with autism

A new kind of 'virtual reality' therapy may help those who have autism and have difficulty interacting with others.
July 30, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
About one in 88 children is diagnosed with autism, and more than a half-million adults have autism or fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. They often have difficulty interacting with others, taking part in conversations and expressing emotion. But now, a new kind of "virtual reality" therapy may help.

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

"Barry still doesn't really enjoy eye contact. It's still not very comfortable," said his mother Annie Thomas.

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," said professor Nilanjan Sarkar from Vanderbilt University.

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

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

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," Sarkar said.

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," Sarkar said.

Annie Thomas says her son's social interaction has been improving, which will help him focus on his dream of being a computer programmer.


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