When real life fails you, the metaverse saves you
Disclaimer: terms such as “autism”, “children affected by autism” or “on the spectrum” are going to be used in this article. I do understand they oversimplify the complexity of the issue on both a clinical and emotional level, but diving deep into their meaning is beyond the scope of this article.
There is a way to facilitate the development of “life skills” for children affected by autism, it’s called virtual reality. This is not even part of the more recent metaverse hype. Companies such as Floreo (1) have been doing it since 2016. Floreo is not even part of some metaversic propaganda. The learning resources it offers are backed by clinical and academic research, though they are not an approved FDA product. Floreo offers highly customisable simulations of real life situations children with autism might find difficult to face. Virtual reality is a great way to practice being in those situations safely and comfortably.
Though I do not mean to take back my previous words of praise, I must admit on a more personal note that the scenarios are quintessentially American, with 4 different ones based on police questioning and a grocery store that looks like a small town. Not to mention the very American choice of the supported platform, which is iOS.
Going back to the use of VR to teach life skills to kids on the spectrum, the University of Newcastle in the UK has pioneered a programme called the Blue Room back in 2019 (2).
Within this virtual environment, which requires no goggles, the person can comfortably investigate and navigate through various scenarios working with a therapist using iPad controls but remain in full control of the situation
If you are looking for a more gamified experience, Akiva offers a fun ecosystem with rewards and friendly avatars for “children with special needs to develop their unique abilities” These include speech, improving attention and gesture skills and experiencing sensory sensations (3).
Along with offering safety and repetitive practice (something children with autism tend to appreciate), these platforms enable the collection of useful data. Akiva itself is powered by AI and Floreo’s CEO mentioned in a podcast episode (4) that: We are able to track things like the stability of your gaze, whether you are fixating on something, and we can not only track whether you accomplished a task but how long it took you to accomplish a task. It’s not realistic for therapists to have a stopwatch
Something else that is useful to know is that the background story of these platforms is almost always about the relationship between a father and his autistic son. Vijay Ravindran’s son is autistic (5), and so is the son of Akiva’s CEO (6). In fact, the platform is named after him. Even though it would be nice to see a background story about a mother and her autistic daughter, or a father and his autistic daughter, parents have a level of emotional, and I dare to say medical understanding of their children’s condition a doctor will never have, regardless of their gender or their child’s gender. I do not mean to offend the medical professionals out there, though I have probably just done that.
Virtual reality has also been used by fathers of autistic boys in a more “artistic” way. An art installation at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London sought to recreate how autistic people perceive the world. The project’s creator, Matt Clark, has a severely autistic 15-year-old son. He decided to build Beholder so others could see the world through his son’s eyes (7).
From their ability to enable kids to develop skills safely and in a fun way, to the possibility of assessing the efficacy of such activities, as well as their moving background stories, these platforms offer great promise.
However, I am not getting paid by any of them to write this article, and if you read some of my stuff before, you will know I do not shy away from asking difficult questions. After all, I have nothing to lose. I am no CEO or politician and I can exercise my right to express my opinion from the comfort of my room and my laptop.
So here’s the thing. If we look at it from a more emotional angle, isn’t it sad that we are resorting to virtual reality to give autistic children a type of support the education and the healthcare system could never give them?
Or perhaps such type of support is not feasible through in person activities, regardless of the system’s willingness to provide it?
Or maybe the system is integrating such type of support already and I should have documented myself better on the topic?
And even if they are, why do ideas always have to come from the outside?
Has virtuality saved autistic kids where the system has failed them? Or has it saved them where real life has failed them?
1 Floreo Tech
2 Blue room, University of Newcastle
4 Podcast with Floreo Tech co-founder
5 Vijay Ravindran
6 Alexander Landa
7 Art by Matt Clark