Virtual Reality: More Than A Game for Autistic Individuals

What if your most daunting aspiration was to make a friend?

As a part of the Kickoff Party for Techweek, the Brain Performance Institute™ at the Center for BrainHealth®, at University of Texas at Dallas, is presenting a scientifically-based social cognitive training program with a virtual-learning platform for individuals that face social cognitive defects. Let’s go behind the scenes with the Center for BrainHealth® to see how they’re using virtual reality to change lives.

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For many on the autism spectrum, with social cognitive deficits, or who struggle socially, reading facial expressions and knowing how to respond are daily challenges that interfere with relationships and career goals. Since 2008, researchers at the Center have been investigating how Virtual Reality skills training provides realistic opportunities for social success.

A research collaboration between the Center for BrainHealth and Yale University led to a scientifically-validated, brain-enhancing therapy that is a fun, high-tech game. It has state-of-the-art graphics, real-time face tracking and personalized avatars that may also have implications for combating bullying.

“If you can succeed in virtual reality, you can do it for real. I wouldn’t have been able to interview and do what I’m doing if it weren’t for the training. I have also made real long-lasting friends. I now truly understand what friendship means and value its importance.” – Carly McCullar, social cognition research participant

How does it work?

  1. In each session, participants are immersed into a live, interactive training session that uses face-tracking technology and is designed to stimulate social-cognitive reasoning skills.
  2. In the virtual world, face-tracking technology allows users to see their own and others’ facial emotions and reactions in real time.
  3. Expert clinicians coach these participants through real-life scenarios in a video game-like environment, providing a safe place to practice social interactions in a VR school, home, playground or coffee shop.
  4. This clinician initiates non-scripted conversations that instill social cognition brain strategies to help these individuals reach their goals.

Why Do It In Virtual Reality?

The virtual reality technology used is a promising tool that provides a safe, inviting and effective platform for improving social skills, cognition, and functioning for those on the autism spectrum. (Source: Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders)

Traditional role-play therapy is limited by a lack of realism as the clinician’s appearance and location are fixed. Virtual reality allows for changeable identities and adaptable surroundings, which help create limitless scenarios. Click here to view the virtual world the Center for BrainHealth has built.

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What’s the Result?

  • According to Center for BrainHealth research, participants significantly improved the ability to recognize other’s emotions, to understand what someone is thinking or feeling, and to respond.
  • Additional research shows that individuals with autism spectrum disorder who participated in a virtual reality training program improved social cognition skills and reported better real-world relationships.
  • Neurocognitive testing showed significant gains in emotional recognition, understanding the perspective of others and the ability to problem solve.


“We live in a highly social world that puts more emphasis on knowing somebody than work or brainpower. The best thing about this program is that it’s a very low-stakes way to practice interacting in everyday ways with others. It provides five or six years of social training in just a few sessions.” –Clark Thurston, social cognition research participant

Real-World Results from a three-month follow-up show:

  • 71 percent reported improvement in starting a conversation
  • 100 percent reported improvement in maintaining a conversation
  • 86 percent reported improvement in understanding other points of view
  • 86 percent reported improvement in establishing relationships

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Recently featured on the TODAY show, The Brain Performance Institute at the Center for BrainHealth demonstrates how the applications of virtual reality go far behind gaming and entertainment. This solution can build social-reasoning skills and real-world confidence to change the lives of participants.

Meet the Center and its Brain Performance Institute™ team at the Techweek Kickoff Party: Behind the Scenes With Immersive Reality, and experience this life-changing tech firsthand.