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Researchers creating virtual reality system to tackle social anxiety for people with autism spectrum disorder

Bryan Dujka tries on Microsoft HoloLens, one of the technologies that Katherine A. Loveland, PhD, and her colleagues are leveraging to address social anxiety associated with autism spectrum disorders.
Bryan Dujka tries on Microsoft HoloLens, one of the technologies that Katherine A. Loveland, PhD, and her colleagues are leveraging to address social anxiety associated with autism spectrum disorders. (Photo by Maricruz Kwon/UTHealth)

Life doesn’t provide do-overs—except at UTHealth.

For people with autism spectrum disorder, everyday social interactions can create tremendous anxiety. Trouble reading conversational cues and facial expressions can leave people with autism spectrum disorder paralyzed with fear over embarrassing themselves or offending others.

UTHealth researchers are developing a virtual reality system that will allow people with autism spectrum disorder to practice interacting in social situations without the pressure of real people. A virtual reality headset will simulate a party, for example, where the user can encounter virtual people and with the help of a therapist gradually reduce the anxiety associated with such situations.  

Led by Katherine A. Loveland, PhD, Landmark Charities Professor in Autism Research and Treatment at McGovern Medical School and director of UTHealth Changing Lives through Autism Spectrum Services Clinic, the research team continues to develop and refine the system in preparation for testing with people with autism. Key advances from the past year include:

  • Improving the user experience for the virtual reality party exposure scenario and adding questions about anxiety during the scene,
  • Enhancing an application that allows an avatar (a virtual person) controlled by a therapist to interact with the user, and
  • Refining a system that will recognize facial expressions and display information about them to the user.

Support from Landmark Charities—the philanthropic arm of Landmark Industries—has provided key funding for Loveland and her team to continue their work on the project. Marshall Dujka, who co-owns Landmark Industries, has a personal interest in the program. His son, Bryan, has autism and has volunteered to help test the virtual reality scenarios. The Dujka family recently toured Loveland’s laboratory for an up-close look at the project’s ongoing development.

“I am deeply grateful for Landmark Charities’ generosity and the support of the Dujka family,” says Loveland, Director of the Center for Human Development Research. “They are helping us change lives in a profound way.”   

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