Title:Development of symbolic play through the use of virtual reality tools in children with autistic spectrum disorders
Source:Herrera, G., Alcantud, F., Jordan, R., Blanquer, A., Labajo, G., De Pablo, C. (2008). Development of symbolic play through the use of virtual reality tools in children with autistic spectrum disorders: Two case studies. Autism, 12(2), 143-157. DOI: 10.1177/1362361307086657

In general, I tend to stay away from case reports (studies using one or just a couple of participants). Usually I don’t even read them, since most of the time I feel that, given what we know about methodology today, case reports should not even be published. I say ‘most of the time’ because once in a while a case report is published that reminds me why case reports are important: to provide us with insight as to where future research could focus. So I want to briefly review a case report published in the last issue of Autism as simply food for thought.

Clinically, the absence of pretend play in early childhood is one of the most common features of ADSs. Parents report that their children do not engage in imaginary or pretend play and do not use toys as expected when play requires symbolic understanding. For example, when provided with a box of Star Wars figurines, a child may simply line up the figures making patterns on the floor and may not use the figures to recreate situations or scenes as expected. The assumption is that the child does not view the figures as symbolic representations of people. The authors of this paper wanted to use Virtual Reality as a tool to teach children with autism to use symbolic play. There is some evidence that suggest that symbolic play is of significant importance for the development of several cognitive skills including language, spontaneity, intention, etc. Thus, the authors argued that interventions that teach children to use symbolic play could be of benefit to children with ADSs.

The authors used a computer virtual reality game “the Virtual Supermarket” to teach children to move from physically manipulating the objects (picking up items from the shelves), to engaging in functional play (dressing a doll with miniature clothing), to finally engaging in symbolic play (using a pair of trousers as an imaginary road). The authors used this game with two children, age 8 and 15, who had been diagnosed with Autism based on DSM-IV criteria. The two individuals received 28 sessions of this type of games during 2 ½ months. They were tested on a variety of measures before and after the intervention period. The authors stated that after the intervention period the children demonstrated improvement in functional use of objects, functional play (measured via the Test of Pretend Play – ToPP), symbolic play (ToPP), imagination understanding, and magic understanding.

Although this study suffers from the common limitations of case studies, it is extremely interesting, and it should encourage future research in the use of virtual reality as an intervention tool for the teaching of symbolic understanding.

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One Response to The use of Virtual Reality in children with Autism

  1. Jules says:

    Hello, havent been here in awhile because of time constraints, although I do really like the scholarly nature of your blog. I agree that case studies should be viewed with caution. I’m glad you focused on this area of research for this post.

    It does seem that there is a great deal of value and hope attached to this particular study. Perhaps more work should be done in this area in the future. Maybe I’ll suggest virtual reality or a program like Second Life to the director of a university-affiliated camp (the pilot program consists of 15 children)that my son belongs too.

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