Autism spectrum disorder, also known as ASD, is of enormous complexity. There are not two affected equal. The demonstrations are many, and very different in intensity and form. New technologies, however, open unexpected doors before so much difficulty.
That is what they try to do in Answare Tech, a company located in Murcia that already has almost an App available to work on one of the most complicated issues in cases of ASD: waiting. With Virtual Reality glasses and the help of a specialist, affected people can improve their interaction with everyday situations but difficult to deal with.
We have contacted these developers to know the project, which has not yet been released and is in an advanced testing stage. We wanted to know how it works and what benefits it offers. This is what we have learned about people with ASD and the use of VR to help them in their day to day life.
VirTEA, Virtual Reality to help in the waits
No two people are the same. The same applies to autistic spectrum disorder, where the manifestations are completely diverse. But there is something quite common with what all family and friends struggle: waiting. Waiting in the dentist’s office, the hairdresser or the bus can be quite a feat in some cases.
The specialists have developed numerous strategies to face these everyday situations. Normally, this is done through pictograms and “training”. However, from theory to reality there is an important and essential step. This is where an application like VirTEA comes into play.
This application is one of the few, if not the only one, developed entirely in peninsular soil. We have approached the office of Answare Tech, in the University Campus of Espinardo, in Murcia. There, a young team works on several digital projects, some of international scope, surrounded by geek notes, varied merchandising and an air of passion for what they do.
“VirTEA is a Virtual Reality application that recreates scenes so that a person with ASD can anticipate unusual situations,” says Felipe Molina Benito, Software Engineer at Answare Tech, standing up as we speak. “This helps them to work waiting times For example, one of the scenarios is a visit to the dentist, thanks to this software you can experience what you will find, from the waiting room to sitting in the chair inside the consultation. to get used to the noises that they will find, something that normally causes them to startle. ” At the moment, VirTEA has not gone on the market, but tests have already started with some boys and girls with ASD, helped by a specialist and the Association for the Care of People with Development Disorder (ASTRADE).
Felipe insists that we test the glasses and the application. After adjusting HTC Vives, suddenly, we get into a neat virtual dentist’s office. The brightness enters through the window and a man looks at the mobile next to us. A red light tells us to wait: “It is set to wait a minute, more or less,” the engineer tells me. Meanwhile, the digital world around us continues quietly until a green light appears. At that moment the nurse comes out from behind the door and invites us to pass.
How does it work?
The following scene is presented within the dentist’s office, created in great detail. Again, the red light tells us we should wait while the dentist’s image approaches us. “People with ASD like the routine, having planned what they are going to do every day, so situations that go beyond their daily routine generate a lot of anxiety, especially if those situations have waiting periods,” he explains. Felipe, who has been working with several specialists in autism spectrum disorders for a while now.
As he explains, pictograms are usually used to explain to a person with ASD what will happen in this type of situation. “With VirTEA we try to shorten the distance between these pictograms, in which we anticipate what they will find in that special situation, and real life,” he continues. “With the application we want you to have an experience quite close to reality, but with the security of being in an environment that you have under control, such as your own home or the day center or association to which you go.”
For this, Answare Tech has developed several scenes: the dentist and a hairdresser. The two situations, very common, present a serious problem for many patients with ASD. Soon they will finish a third scene based on a bus stop. “Yes, we have two finished scenarios and we are working on the third, in which the user is placed on a street waiting for the bus,” the engineer confirms. “The street is busy with cars, pedestrians, a noisy motorcycle and a dog barking nearby.”
Living the TEA up close
I found out about the existence of VirTEA by some comments on social networks of Raquel Sastre, humorist, revindicative, especially concerned with the dissemination of science and Emma’s mother, who has Phelan McDermid syndrome, and which is associated with autistic spectrum disorder . Raquel does not shrink in the language to speak about the TEA or to denounce the lack that makes early attention, in health services, not a luxury but an integral, public and free service.
“Emma’s therapist was testing the application in the past AETAPI Congress, in Cartagena, and she says that the application is great, that she paints very well, and that the biggest impediment I saw was the glasses, but for now it seems that the kids adapt very well to them “. Raquel tells us that at ASTRADE, who have been working with people with ASD for more than 30 years, they are very excited about using this tool.
“We have presented VirTEA to a group of relatives and the general response has been very positive,” Felipe told us during the visit to his offices. “In fact, they have made us very interesting suggestions and they do not stop proposing new scenarios, but we want to be cautious, each case is different and soon we will start testing with more people with ASD, in order to better fine tune the operation of the application” .
The difficulties of capturing an unknown reality
These normal events can pose a problem for a person with ASD, although it does not manifest the same for all people with the disorder. This, which is the most ambitious scenario of VirTEA, is also one of the most promising, although these three are not the only ones. “We have several more proposals that have made us relatives and specialists, such as traveling by plane, an appointment with the gynecologist, attending a birthday party …”, says Felipe. “The list is long and they do not stop proposing different situations.”
The biggest challenge, according to Felipe, has been the creation of contents. “Many times we have to ask ourselves how we would do something that, in an application aimed at another audience, we would do in a way but in this case we need to focus for these users, which is why we are in continuous contact with specialists, and we reformulate many of the functionalities to adapt them as best as possible. “
“For example,” he insists, “on the hairdressing stage, the sound was not sufficiently present because we were not aware of how stressful the noise of scissors can be in the ear of a person with ASD. As an ambient sound, we are going to make this sound more present and rotate around the user, as it happens in reality “.
Virtual Reality for all
Another question that we can not avoid doing is how the application will be distributed. First of all, if we do not have VR glasses, how can we use VirTEA? This involves a high cost, of course. This is where the mobile application comes in, as the Software Engineer tells us. “The project started with a focus on VR desktop devices for associations and institutions, which are very interested,” he explains. “But we were not aware that the families themselves would also be interested in acquiring the product.”
“When we started showing the tool, families were constantly asking us if there would be a more affordable mobile version since desktop VR has a high cost,” he continues. As he explains, this has led to the development of an App for all households. “We are doing a tremendous job of optimization, and we are very close to being able to offer a mobile VR version, aimed at cheaper devices.”
The intention of the company is to be able to offer two different applications: a more realistic one, focused on desktop VR. This will be of higher cost and will be directed to institutions, organizations and companies. The other one will be for the mobile, it will be more optimized and it will be cheaper to reach families.
“From my point of view, when talking about a specific treatment with people with a wide personal variability, such as the TEA population,” José Javier explains when asked about this issue, “and also, as it is a team to some extent expensive, I think that apart from reaching families or homes directly, you should opt for or try to get associations or clinics, with qualified personnel, to carry out the intervention. “
“I think it is something more serious than all that and must be systematic when it comes to launch the program to see desired and beneficial results,” he concludes. “It’s something that we work with the specialist [training in the face of waiting],” says Raquel, “but it’s also something parents can work in. Scientific evidence, nowadays, is with family-centered therapy, it’s Say, the specialist is there, but the family also has to do therapy with the children, so I think it’s something parents can use without problems, too. “