Understanding autism better through virtual reality

KUALA LUMPUR: While medical professionals have become much better at diagnosing autism, many people still have a limited understanding of the disorder.

Ever wondered how an autistic person feels on a day-to-day basis?

In conjunction with World Autism Awareness Day 2023 which fell on April 2, several organisations - TikTok Malaysia, National Autism Society of Malaysia (Nasom), virtual reality (VR) entertainment provider Pico and online social news platform SAYS - joined forces to launch #KasihiAutism, a campaign to raise awareness on autism, as well as an experiential 360-degree VR video that, in layman’s terms, can literally put people in an autistic person’s shoes.

The almost 30-second clip provides viewers with an immersive experience, allowing them to catch a glimpse of the "sensory overload” autistic people frequently encounter.

The campaign organisers believe the video is a potent means to cultivate empathy and compassion for the autistic community as it enables viewers to experience how autistic persons see, hear and feel.

Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a developmental condition typically appearing due to a neurological disorder that affects the functions of the brain.

The condition causes impairment in a person’s development in language and communication skills as well as social, play and adaptive functioning skills, making it hard for him or her to relate to the outside world.

Using VR in awareness campaign

VR is an artificial environment that is experienced through sensory stimuli such as sights and sounds provided simultaneously by a computer, making the user feel as if they are immersed in their surroundings.

Users can experience this VR technology by wearing a headset complete with a visual monitor, headphones and speakers.

During the launch of the #KasihiAutism campaign recently at Pico’s flagship store in Sunway Pyramid, visitors including this writer got the opportunity to watch the special immersive video.

After adjusting the VR headset, which resembled a helmet from the "Star Wars” movie series, on her head and pressing the "play” button, the writer, armed with a set of controllers, found herself in a VR environment filled with people, electronics, lights and tables. The lights became blurry and harsh, affecting the writer’s visibility and even making her feel a little panicky. The sounds were loud and appeared to emerge from everywhere.

To summarise, the experience left the writer feeling short of breath and also anxious and even a bit tearful.

TikTok Malaysia strategy operations manager Darren Quek said they came up with the video after thoroughly researching ways VR can be harnessed to provide a better understanding of autism.

He said they also took a look at how other countries used VR to raise awareness of autism.

"This served as a guide for our eventual idea which was to enable the public to experience what it feels like to be in their (autistic person’s) shoes and understand the challenges and complexities they face on a daily basis,” he told Bernama.

Last year, a county council in Staffordshire, England, launched a campaign called Celebrating Differences, where VR was used to enable the public to experience sensory difficulties and symptoms most autistic individuals encounter in their lives.

Better understanding of autism

Keh Wei Sheng, a TikTok influencer who goes by the handle Stantheman705, also viewed the VR video and the experience left him feeling sad and heavy-hearted.

"I felt very lost and motionless as if I was being slow in a fast-paced environment. I also felt suffocated and breathless, unable to express myself,” he related, adding that the experience opened his eyes to how people with autism live.

"I hope people can learn to be more understanding and knowledgeable on ways to live with autistic people. Spread more love and kindness.”

Commenting on the VR video, Nasom honorary secretary Cason Ong said VR stimulation is a great way to gain more support from people towards the autistic community.

"With this, you can (literally) be in their (autistic person’s) shoes. You will be in their situation, so you can know how they think and react to something,” he added.

TikTok Malaysia’s Quek said campaigns like #KasihiAutism will help change the way people perceive autism.

"Rather than seeing it (autism) as a mental problem or disease, or having misconceptions about autistic children and not taking care of them properly due to a lack of understanding of their behaviour, we want to educate the public about ASD so that they (autistic persons) can be better accepted by the community and face less negative judgement,” he said.

It is estimated that one in 100 children worldwide has autism, according to the World Health Organisation. Malaysia has no data on autism specifically but according to the Department of Social Welfare’s records, as of Jan 31, 2023, there were 235,731 individuals with learning disabilities which include autism, Down syndrome and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The Ministry of Health was also quoted as saying in March this year that it has prepared a paper for the Cabinet’s consideration on the setting up of a National Autism Council that will act as an organised and productive platform for the provision of services to individuals with ASD.- Bernama

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