Avatars help autistic patients practice their social skills

Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas Center for BrainHealth are using avatar-based simulations to help patients diagnosed with a form of autism called Asperger's Syndrome (AS) to practice their social skills in a safe, virtual world.

Patients diagnosed with AS, while of normal intelligence, have trouble reading non-verbal cues, adapting to change and learning social behavior. Inside the virtual world, which includes settings commonly encountered in everyday life such as restaurants, shops, offices, parks and other social spaces, they're able to interact with other real people's avatars as practice. This method of virtual training is distinct from another widely used method of role-playing, in that they feel the same emotions as they would in direct encounters. Patients can for example practice their interviewing skills with real people on-line until the fear and anxiety of a real meeting with a potential supervisor diminishes. In addition to the virtual-world therapy, the participants receive plenty of one-on-one coaching as they are trained to develop the insight to assess their own responses.

BrainHealth researchers say they detect dramatic improvements with many of the virtual training participants in terms of simple awareness of their social problems. This kind of therapy is also suitable for people who suffer from schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder, addictions, strokes and brain injuries.

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