The purpose of the study was to develop and test a virtual reality application designed to put the participants “in the shoes” of an autistic person during a routine task.
The study involved a randomized controlled trial that included 103 participants recruited from a technical college. Each participant responded to three questionnaires to measure attitudes, knowledge, and openness toward autism. Prior to responding to these questionnaires, the participants in the experimental group also completed an 8-min virtual reality simulation designed by the research team in collaboration with autistic individuals.
The participants who completed the virtual reality simulation reported better attitudes, more knowledge, and higher openness toward autism than the participants in the control group.
The results of the study suggest that virtual reality simulations are promising tools to raise awareness about autism.
The results of our study indicate that the VR simulation positively influenced the attitudes, knowledge, and openness of the participants toward autism. These results are consistent with those of prior studies that have used VR to raise awareness about other neurodivergences (Formosa et al., 2018; Tassinari et al., 2022; Yuen & Mak, 2021). A strength of our study is that autistic individuals were involved in the design of the tasks and content included in the virtual reality application. This inclusion may have improved the social validity of the autistic simulation that our participants experienced. One mechanism that may explain the observed changes is that being placed in the shoes of the autistic person may allow the user to develop more empathy toward people with different needs (Lara & Rueda, 2021). That is, prior research had shown that VR perspective-taking experiences may promote prosocial behavior toward people that we consider different (Herrera et al., 2018). Moreover, the informational video embedded within the VR application may have improved knowledge by providing more details and nuance about the condition, which in turn influenced attitudes and openness toward autism in a positive way (Kuzminski et al., 2019; Nevill & White, 2011; Park et al., 2010).
One challenge of using VR to raise awareness is that access to head-mounted devices remains limited in the general population. For this reason, the VR application targets large organizations that train staff to work with autistic individuals or who service this population. For example, universities could use the application to train future professionals (e.g., occupational therapists, behavior analysts), health centers and hospitals could adopt the simulation to raise awareness among their personnel who have contact with autistic individuals (e.g., administrative assistants, nurses), and employers who integrate autistic individuals could raise awareness among managers and co-workers. Albeit promising, VR simulations may not be suitable for everyone. Some parts of the population (e.g., older adults) may experience challenges in moving around in the VR environment, especially if they have never used a joystick in the past.
...Future research should adopt a longitudinal design to track whether these positive outcomes persist. Our virtual reality application simulated a single example of how an autistic person may experience a specific event, going to the dentist. Given the heterogeneity of autistic individuals, future simulations should present a broader range of experiences to prevent the development of stereotypical perceptions. Furthermore, researchers should examine more concrete manifestations of stigmatization (e.g., real-life observations) and the ability of VR to reduce them. Opportunities for social contact and behavioral observations can capture a more natural response and realistic desire for social distance or avoidance, as opposed to self-report scales. Overall, we propose that future research in this area continue to include more individuals to create a sample representative of the population observed over a longer period of time.