Virtual reality is proving to be a viable solution to easing the social anxiety teens with ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome encounter daily. These teens go through tremendous difficulty developing the social skills to interact with peers and adults in what most consider normal social situations. The Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas has been successfully improving these teens social anxiety via VR sessions, helping them to make friends and communicate openly.

The VR program looks like any other first person video game but actively focuses on engaging in social interactions. Teens might experience an encounter where they invite someone to a party, meet a peer for the first time or even confront bullies. They do this by simultaneously interacting with two clinicians. One clinician role plays the virtual partner while the other provides instructions and coaches them through a headset in an adjacent room. Teens completed 10 of these one hour sessions spread out over five weeks.

Prior to VR sessions, participants were tested on their emotional skills and had a brain scan. Already several studies have been published on the success of this method. Even beyond the data participants felt real, life changing results. “I’ve learned how to start a conversation, just how to break the ice”. Said Jeff, a participant with Asperger’s.

According to the mother of one participant, Before it was all about what she thought and then she would impulsively jump in and then she would get a bad response. So, what this has been able to do is let her think about what other people are thinking or feeling and then how she can react appropriately.”

Researchers are just as excited and proud of the study’s results, “It’s exciting that we can observe changes in diverse domains including emotion recognition, making social attribution, and executive functions related to reasoning through this life-like intervention,” said Dr. Daniel C. Krawczyk, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. “These results demonstrate that core social skills can be enhanced using a virtual training method.”

Currently the VR program is only available in Dallas and costs $1800 per student. Researchers are working to get funding to spread the program which could easily be implemented across the country. Researchers hope to only expand the program but grow the reach of each study.

“This research builds on past studies we conducted with adults on the autism spectrum and demonstrates that virtual reality may be a promising and motivating platform for both age groups,” said Tandra Allen, head of virtual training programs at UT. “This was the first study to pair participants together with the goal of enhancing social learning. We observed relationships in life grow from virtual world conversations. We saw a lot of growth in their ability to initiate and maintain a conversation, interpret emotions and judge the quality of a friendship.”

This study is proof that social anxiety and other social disorders don’t have to be debilitating. Teens and even adults can benefit from practicing controlled social interactions in virtual environments.