About 3 years ago, I tried out the Vive a VR headset for the first time. I was startled and surprised by how immersive and real the experience felt. I was quickly converted to the potential of virtual reality and its application. Some time later we purchased the Oculus Rift headset. We wanted to see how our Autistic son would interact with the virtual reality world.
With the virtual reality headset on, other sensory environmental stimulus was either removed or seemed muted. I was interested to see if this would enable focus or be too overwhelming for someone with a sensory processing disability.
Our son’s attention span, at the time, was no more than a couple of minutes per activity. Sensory issues had and still have a massive impact on him. We weren’t sure if he would even keep the headset on.
Initially our son tried a VR experience called ‘Henry’, a cute animated story about a hedgehog who has a birthday party. He sat on the floor looking all around for a good 20 minutes enjoying the experience. For a good few months he would regularly ask for “Henry” and enjoy moving around Henry’s home in VR space. This itself felt like a massive step.
We then moved onto the fun house games; If you have experienced these, they include a basket ball shootout game,a game where you can shoot slime everywhere, and our son’s personal favorite was a game where you can pop balloons with swords. These games are more interactive and got him up and moving, interacting with the environment whilst retaining his focus for longer periods of time.
We also had a few friends around with autistic children and we noticed high levels of engagement with the games with their children too. The games they were playing weren’t designed specifically for people with additional needs, and I wondered if there was anything available on VR which could help people with neurological conditions, more specifically.
VR to help autistic children learn communication skills
I came across Floreo founded by parents of a child with autism Vijay Ravindran and Vibah Sazawal. Floreo has created a number of VR learning tools specifically for children on the autism spectrum.
Floreo is a science-backed system for teaching social, behavioral, speech, and motor skills using virtual reality. It’s designed for the unique needs of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or other related developmental delays, to practice real-world skills in engaging and immersive environments with the assistance of a supervising adult.
The learning modules teach things like joint attention, imitation, gestures, mindfulness, as well as simulations to learn skills like crossing a road, and police safety.
Floreo has just released 3 new learning modules.
1 – Social Sense in the Cafeteria: where you can practice initiating and participating in conversation with a peer
2 – Small Talk in the Hallway: Practicing quick social interactions
3 – Crystal Cave: A mindfulness practice
Floreo is run on mobile and you can download it for IOS on the app store and is therefore highly accessible as a technology.
But what other opportunities does VR offer people with neurological conditions ?
A few have tried to simulate what autism feels like to help people not on the spectrum understand. This is helpful in terms of autism awareness but since it is a wide spectrum, each person will experience it differently, and thus can really only touch the surface of what one person might be experiencing.
VR to treat phobias
There are also companies like Oxford VR who treat patients with phobias; with VR these realistic simulations of experiences are experienced by the patient in a very realistic way. Even though the user knows these are not real it exposed them to their phobia and can help the patient change how he or she thinks. They can transfer what the have learnt via VR into the real world.
Oxford VR are now applying virtual reality to working with people with psychosis with complex challenges to help simulate everyday situations and enable patients to engage with these situations and then transfer these to the virtual world.
VR to help perception of time
Researchers from the University of Waterloo discovered VR can help improve an individual’s perception of time. “The ability to estimate the passage of time with precision is fundamental to our ability to interact with the world,” says co-author Séamas Weech, a post-doctoral fellow in Kinesiology.
“For some individuals, however, the internal clock is maladjusted, causing timing deficiencies that affect perception and action. Studies like ours help us to understand how these deficiencies might be acquired, and how to recalibrate time perception in the brain.”
Playing games in virtual reality (VR) could be a key tool in treating people with neurological conditions such as autism, schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.
The technology, could help individuals with these conditions shift their perceptions of time, which their conditions lead them to perceive differently.
VR to treat stroke
Mindmaze was born out of the realisation that traditional treatments for stroke patients weren’t motivating or frequent enough to maximize potential for a full recovery. So in 2012, MindMaze, created a neurorehabilitation company that uses virtual reality and neuroscience to repair broken connections in the brain, and retrain the body to move after a stroke. The technology has also been proven to alleviate symptoms of phantom pain in amputees.
Because there’s such a short window after a stroke, when the brain can bounce back, starting treatment early is critical. MindMotion Pro can be used in-hospital just four days after a brain injury, and studies found the training intensity of stroke patients using the device almost doubled in the first 10 sessions. Strokes are also devastating long-term, and Tadi found many patients had trouble motivating themselves once they were out of the hospital. With the portable MindMotion Go device, patients can start playing at home in just five minutes. Clinical research found patients were motivated by the variety of goal-oriented games, and practiced up to 15 times more therapeutic exercises compared to traditional treatments.
VR to treat Dementia
ImmersiCare have worked in partnership with care home group, Quantum Care, to implement Virtual Reality into the daily lives of residents in elderly care, using it as a therapeutic engagement activity. The experience has an overwhelmingly positive effect on the majority of residents’ wellbeing and has helped carers and residents connect to each other in the sharing of experiences and memories.
Using VR to motor and cognitive rehabilitation in MS
Emerging research shows promise with the use of virtual reality (VR) for motor and cognitive rehabilitation in MS. “Studies suggest that VR can produce benefits in balance, gait, and mobility in persons with MS, and might also have some cognitive benefits — most studies have shown it to be better than no intervention, but not necessarily superior to conventional gait training or physical therapy,” said Barbara S Giesser, MD, professor of neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles, clinical director of the MS program there, and fellow of the American Academy of Neurology.
In addition, VR “has been shown to enhance conventional locomotor training, with a combination of VR and locomotor training conferring better results than locomotor training alone,” she told Neurology Advisor
Counselling, coaching and therapy delivered virtually
It is hard to ignore the possibility of providing counselling, coaching and therapy delivered by VR.
An avatar can be equated with an imaginary companion, which in developmental and clinical psychology is often ascribed development-promoting functions, activation of self-healing powers and compensation for deficits in relationships and impulse control in children.
Thanks to the possibilities for individualization in the creation of the avatar, a symbolic function for one’s own self is also created, creating a connection between the real and the digital world. Among other things, this opens up the staging of role plays within therapeutic or coaching settings.
Clients could be given the opportunity to learn and evolve social skills by testing out new characteristics and trying themselves out in a protected area. They could also access the face to face feel of therapy which may be particularly beneficial to people who find it harder to get out to attend appointments, attend educational settings or require 1 to 1 teacher, specialist coach or councilor.
VR to help patients with Parkinsons
Researchers are reporting early success with a new tool to help people with Parkinson’s disease improve their balance and potentially decrease falls with virtual reality. After practicing with a virtual reality system for six weeks, people with Parkinson’s disease demonstrated improved obstacle negotiation and balance along with more confidence navigating around obstacles in their path.
For many people with Parkinson’s disease, the simple act of walking through the house or neighborhood can be a treacherous undertaking. The muscle and movement problems caused by the disease decrease a person’s range of motion and impair balance, often leading to falls and injuries.
To help patients manage these challenges, researchers created a virtual reality training system that gives patients a safe space to hone their muscle control and balance. Patients walk on a treadmill while stepping over virtual objects that appear before them. If they are successful in one round, the objects become larger in the next round.
“The primary advantage is that they can encounter multiple obstacles and terrains while a safe environment is maintained using equipment such as a fall restraint tether,” said K. Bo Foreman, PT, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Motion Capture Core Facility at the University of Utah.
“Participants enjoyed the experience and thought it was fun, not just exercise. They liked training and challenging themselves without the fear of falling.”
Virtual reality shows enormous potential to help people with neurological conditions, and is likely to be an area for further research and further applications. I am looking forward to seeing what comes next.
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