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Even the best-intentioned people cannot fully understand what life is like for autistic individuals when it is described only in words.

Last year, 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. He also collaborated with artists who either are on the spectrum or have family members who are on the spectrum.

The Beholder project exemplifies a new approach to the use of virtual reality (VR). This project seeks to present more general impressions that give a fuller sense of the autistic experience, since VR can be used as a natural way to communicate alternative modes of perception.

Autism therapists and researchers started to use VR in the mid-1990s. For more than two decades, scientists have experimented with the technology to set up controlled scenarios to study autistic traits. Researchers deployed the technology to create virtual environments to help autistic people deal with stressful encounters, like job-interviews for instance. Some teams have used VR to create role-playing environments for practicing social skills. One application lets autistic children practice public speaking in a virtual classroom with an audience of eight avatars. To encourage them to look around the room rather than stare straight ahead, the avatars start to fade away if the speaker fails to make eye contact with them. VR can also make autistic children more comfortable in strange environments that they have never experienced before. For example, VR can be used to create a virtual tour of a local science museum a few days before an actual visit.

In addition, people with autism are using VR to convey their own experiences, both to raise awareness around the condition, and to capture the cognitive and perceptual differences that characterize it. Some experts hope these efforts will lead to new research collaborations and applications.

Proponents of VR argue that no other medium comes as close to putting you in someone else’s shoes via a perceptual experience. However, others claim that it fails to capture the social isolation that is often part of a disability, and that they can evoke pity and condescension, driving people apart rather than together.

For all its apparent advantages, VR has yet to be rigorously tested as a therapeutic or research tool for autism. One reason is cost, not just of the equipment, but of the programmers and animators needed to create the content. Another key fact is the lack of people with relevant expertise. Consequently, VR scenarios remain highly simplified and fail to be realistic.

VR technology has all the credentials to represent a step forward in the right direction in this field. As always, the main purpose is to take the step with conviction and knowledge of the facts.