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Can You Virtually Enhance Empathy?

The Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society is using virtual reality technology (VR) to help enable people to empathize with children who have autism. As part of the Autism Demystification® program, the organization aims to foster peer social relationships

One in 66 Canadian children have autism , or what is more appropriately termed autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Most commonly, this condition is characterized by hardships with social interaction and repetitive behaviours. Given these characteristics, what resulted is a widespread misconception about autism being a so-called ‘empathy disorder’ , or the stereotype of people with autism having a lack of empathy. Many autism researchers and advocates continue to fight the good fight in dismantling this belief, because ironically, people with autism can be capable of feeling too much.

There is no question that emotions can be difficult to maintain for people with ASD, but this begs the question: why is it presumed that the onus is on people with autism to be conditioned for emphatic traits, when people without autism (questionably) have a supposed bigger capacity for emotional intelligence?

Autism is not a condition that needs ‘treatment’. Heather McCracken, an autism advocate, has worked tirelessly to reversing this stigma. “Treatment is a term from the old medical model. In the medical model, autism is considered to be ‘bad’ and someone with autism is considered as someone that requires ‘fixing’. But today we understand that autism is a neurological condition. And we embrace neurodiversity.”

It turns out, neurotypicals (people without autism) are the ones who need help in mustering empathy. For many, that help could come in the form of virtual reality technology. The BC-based autism charitable organization, Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society developed a virtual reality program that lets neurotypicals experience what it feels like to have autism.

It is a part of the Autism Demystification® program—an initiative to provide educational programs to foster social inclusion for individuals with autism. Heather McCracken serves as its founder and executive director.

“It is all about triggering the user’s mirror neurons and supporting the user to have feelings of empathy towards individuals with autism,” says McCracken.

Summoning empathy is key. According to McCracken, empathy is the starting point for developing friendships. This is likely why the VR simulator is specifically set in a school setting,Friend 2 Friend had already been running other Autism Demystification® programs prior to its development of VR. Namely, the puppet program and simulation game program, which they provide in school settings for youths aged 3 to 18.

ASD is usually diagnosed within the first three years of a child’s life, which especially poses an obstacle once the child gets introduced to social environments like schools and playgrounds. For someone with ASD, friends can be hard to come by, especially in environments like schools that tend to have social hierarchies imposed. Friend 2 Friend wants to change this landscape.

Heather McCracken is a mother of three, one of whom is a now 25-year-old son with autism named Iain. When Iain first went through the public education system circa 1998, McCracken noticed that there were no educational programs that teach about autism. “I recognized the need for school-based programs that would teach peers to not only to understand their peers with autism (and other types of neurodiversity) but to teach peers how to communicate, socialize and play with their peers with autism.”

This was when she started to research and build the foundation of Autism Demystification® programs. In 2002, McCracken founded Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society. The organization would go on to develop the aforementioned Autism Demystification® programs, as well as host seminars and professional development training sessions. They’ve generated some substantial results, but in 2015, they decided that it was time to take it a step further. The logical step would be to integrate the latest technological innovations, namely Virtual Reality (VR).

McCracken collaborated with James Jacobs the CEO of Ziva Dynamics, to develop a virtual reality simulator. They would call it the Virtual Reality Autism Demystification® Program (VRADP). The program was kick-started in May of 2018, but Friend 2 Friend is still encountering financial barriers to develop the program further. For now, after also enlisting the help of a Seattle-based team at Valve, the program is still in the demo stage. A demo station was set up in Friend 2 Friend’s newly-opened New Westminster location.

They have delivered the program to over 50,000 youths and 35,000 adults. McCracken says that the program is something that the individual has to experience for themselves. When a user dons the VR gear, they are transported to an elementary classroom setting. They are tasked with a spelling test, where the user can grab letters floating in the air to spell out words like ‘friendship’. Everyone’s response time is different, but the task usually poses minimal difficulty for a neurotypical individual. The user is then asked to repeat the test, but this time with more distractions and they are afforded with less control. This is when the realizations set in.

After the demo, the user is given a survey assessing on a scale of 1 to 5, how the program enabled them to empathize with individuals who have autism. If the user has autism themselves, they also ask if the simulation resembles their own experiences. This would be key in order to further develop the program.

Autism cannot be thought of as a singular disorder but rather, it contains a broad range of neurodevelopmental conditions. Hence, autism spectrum disorder. “The old saying is, ‘If you know one person with autism, then you know one person with autism,’” imparts McCracken. The program is not focused on educating about autism in a theoretical sense. Rather, the greater concern lies with fostering a social environment for those with autism.

As modern society evolves to recognize all kinds of diversity—neurodiversity in this case—the onus is on neurotypicals to assuage the social difficulties that individuals with autism encounter. McCracken encourages everyone to spread the word. “We have built the Society entirely by word of mouth. Support the Society, the programs and the individuals with autism we serve by telling two people about us and ask them to tell two people and so on.”

Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society is looking for support in developing the program. They’re looking out for those who have experience in building gaming applications, plus they train people who are in health sciences and education. Feel free to reach out!