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Exploring Virtual Reality systems for delivering therapy programs to individuals with ASD

The CDC has increased its estimates of the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) among American children to 1 in 69, up from the 1 in 88 reported previously.  Experts believe this number will continue to rise based on contemporary understanding of genetic and environmental factors. Because of this increase in prevalence, recent legislation has mandated that insurance companies now cover standard treatments for ASD, with the most effective of these treatments typically reported to be applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy.

The increase in ASD diagnoses has created a shortage of properly trained ABA therapists and supervisory board-certified behavior analysts (BCBA’s).  Many therapy providers are relying on advances in technology to allow therapists to operate more effectively in response to increased caseloads.  The largest national ABA provider, the Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD), one of our collaborators, has invested substantial resources into ABA-based games for smartphones and tablets, which serve dual purposes as therapy delivery and data collection mechanisms.

In the past year technical advances in virtual reality (VR) have made available, for the first time, consumer grade, off-the-shelf hardware that is both affordable and robust.  This hardware offers new opportunities to explore the application of virtual reality systems for delivering therapy programs to individuals with ASD, in addition to novel ways for tracking and analyzing the rate at which therapeutic learning objectives are acquired.

Our group is currently developing the first VR software platform for delivering customizable ABA therapy modules.  To deliver customizable content within the VR system, as well as to collect performance measures, we utilize AMP, the Autism Management Platform.  AMP is a cloud-based, multi-modal platform for managing, analyzing, and communicating data in support of the treatment of autism spectrum disorder.  While VR has long been pondered as a technology suitable for treating ASD, no robust solutions currently exist that have been developed in conjunction with clinical experts. Because our research group has an existing collaboration with CARD, we hope to provide the first VR solution to ABA therapy that is both technically and clinically sound.