“I want to learn how to make a friend” is the first request Tandra Allen, social cognition project coordinator at the Center for BrainHealth, usually hears when talking to adolescents with autism.
The transition into adulthood is rarely smooth, but autism poses communication challenges that can derail typical milestones. Establishing relationships or beginning a career are hard to do when knowing how to interpret and react to others’ emotions and body language does not come easily.
For the first time, the Center for BrainHealth and the Child Study Center at Yale University Yale School of Medicine are collaborating to help young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) achieve economic and social independence. “It is the technology of tomorrow, today,” explains Daniel Yang, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher at the Child Study Center at Yale University. “Combining BrainHealth’s virtual reality service model with Yale’s fMRI and EEG techniques, we are able to help individuals with autism and, at the same time, track changes in the brain.”
For more than six years, BrainHealth’s virtual reality program has provided realistic and dynamic opportunities to succeed in social situations. Study findings published recently in the Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders reveal that this cutting-edge technology is a promising tool for improving social skills, cognition, and functioning in autism. “Participants’ scores significantly improve in areas of emotional recognition, as well as the ability to understand and respond to what others are thinking, in as little as five weeks,” said Tandra Allen. “They feel that the training improves their conversation skills. It’s very exciting to be taking this initiative nationwide.”
Carl Lutz, the head of BrainHealth’s virtual reality lab, explained why this works.
“Video games are fun, and this is therapy disguised as a high-tech game with state-of-the-art graphics, real-time face tracking and personalized avatars. Participants don’t realize that while they are having fun, their brains are changing to positively affect future real world scenarios.”
Carly McCullar, a recent UT Dallas graduate who was diagnosed several years ago with ASD, went through the Center’s social cognition training during her senior year. The training taught her to handle dynamic situations such as job interviews, a problem with a neighbor, and
“This is real life. If you can succeed in the alternate reality, you can do it for real,” Carly explained. This summer she passed her TExES 191 Early Childhood – 6th Grade Generalist Exam and was subsequently hired to teach Pre-K at W.W. Bushman Elementary School in Dallas. “I wouldn’t have been able to interview and do what I’m doing if it weren’t for the training,” she said. Ms. McCullar also reports, “I have now made real friends, long-lasting friends whom I know I will maintain relationships with. I now truly understand what friendship means and value its importance.”
The researchers hope to prove that the social brain in autism can be rewired with training.
Dr. Yang expounded, “I hope through this collaboration we will help build a service model that can generalize to many other regions in the United States.”