Since April is the National Autism Awareness Month, we wanted to take a second to show how augmented reality is helping autistic children play with their imagination.
Children can imagine anything with everyday objects, whether it’s having a tea party with stuffed animals or going to the moon in their cardboard box rocket ship. This type of imaginative play helps develop social and language skills, as well as “theory of mind.” It gives children the ability to recognize their emotional states and understand that other people see things differently than they do.
However, children with autism or Asperger Syndrome have a more difficult time pretending things exist when they really don’t.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge have recently developed an augmented reality system which aims to help autistic children experience pretend play in a more visual way. Augmented reality should help these children see how unreal or imaginative things can come to live in their real world.
“The advantage of using AR is that it can help these kids to incorporate what they learn from the computer system into their reality,” says Zhen Bai, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, who developed the augmented reality system. “If it’s purely a virtual environment, it’s difficult to relate what they learn from that environment to the real world. But as AR is enhancing the real world, we hope it makes it easier for kids to generalise such pretend play experience to reality.”
So how does the augmented reality system work?
The child is given several car-related scenarios where they have to use objects, like boxes to act out the scenario. For instance, a car going through a car wash might have props such as soap and brushes. Using the augmented reality technology, the child would play with the objects and watch the objects turn into the car wash props on the computer screen in front of them. The child would hopefully manipulate the props to explore different play ideas.
The system is designed to make it easier for children with autism to experience using one thing as another thing in different contexts. This will hopefully trigger engagement in imaginative play and help them develop imaginative ideas on their own.
“Children with autism are often described as visual thinkers, so by externalising the mental image somewhere else in their reality, it may help them pick up the concept of imaginative play,” says Zhen.
Zhen and the other researchers at University of Cambridge believe that the augmented reality system isn’t just about the interaction between the child and the technology… but that the technology will serve as a platform to get autistic children to play with other kids their age.