This Murcian company has created a virtual reality application to help with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder, also known as ASD, is of enormous complexity. No two affected are the same. The manifestations are many, and very different in intensity and form. New technologies, however, open unexpected doors in the face of so much difficulty.

That is what they try to do at Answare Tech, a company located in Murcia that already has 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 but difficult situations.

We have contacted these developers to learn about the project, which has not yet been released and is in an advanced stage of testing. 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.

VirTEA, Virtual Reality to help in waiting

No two people are the same. The same applies to autism spectrum disorder, where the manifestations are completely diverse. But there is something quite common that all family and friends struggle with: waiting. Waiting at the dentist office, hair salon, or bus can be quite a feat in some cases.

Specialists have developed numerous strategies to deal with these everyday situations. This is usually 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 on peninsular soil. We have approached the Answare Tech office at the Espinardo University Campus in Murcia. There, a young team works on various digital projects, some of them international in 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, standing up as we speak, Software Engineer from Answare Tech. "This helps them work waiting times. For example, one of the scenarios is a visit to the dentist. Thanks to this software they can experience what they will find, from the waiting room to sitting in the chair inside the office. With VirTEA we try to help them get used to the noises they are going to encounter, something that usually startles them. " At the moment, VirTEA has not been released, 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 Developmental Disorders (ASTRADE).

Felipe insists that we try the glasses and the application. After adjusting some HTC Vive, suddenly, we get into a neat virtual dentist consultation. The brightness enters through the window and a man looks at the mobile next to us. A red light indicates that we should wait: "It is configured to wait a minute or so," says the engineer. Meanwhile, the digital world around us continues smoothly until a green light appears. At that moment the nurse comes out from behind the door and invites us in.

How does it work?

The following scene is presented inside the dentist's office, created in great detail. Again, the red light tells us to wait, while the image of the dentist approaches us. "People with ASD like routine, having planned what they are going to do every day. Therefore, situations that get out of their daily routine generate a lot of anxiety, especially if those situations have waiting periods," he explains. Felipe, who has been working with various specialists in autism spectrum disorders for some time.

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, which anticipate what they will find in that special situation, and real life," he continues. "With the application we want them to have an experience that is quite close to reality, but with the security of being in an environment that they have under control, such as their own home or the day center or association they attend."

For this, Answare Tech has developed several scenes: the dentist and a hairdresser. Both situations, very daily, 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 one, in which the user is placed on a street waiting for the bus," confirms the engineer. "The street is busy with cars, pedestrians, a noisy motorcycle, and a dog barking nearby."

Living ASD up close

I learned about the existence of VirTEA through comments on social networks by Raquel Sastre, humorist, vindictive, especially aware of the disclosure of the science and mother of Emma, ​​who has Phelan McDermid syndrome, and which is associated with autism spectrum disorder . Raquel has no hair on her tongue to talk about ASD or to denounce the lack that makes early care, in health services, not a luxury but a comprehensive, public and free service.

For those of you who have children with ASD, how much would you pay for a virtual reality app for mobile with scenarios such as "go to the hairdresser", "take the bus", "go to the dentist" ... so that they experience in advance what who will feel and be able to handle stress and waiting? RT

- Raquel Sastre.Cómica (@raquelsastrecom) October 23, 2018

"I met VirTEA through a mutual friend, who put me in contact with them and they showed me the application," explains Raquel, "I think it is very successful. It is very intuitive, it is very well made and it is very simple. It goes with colors that tell you when you have to be seated and when you have to get up. I think it can help a lot in managing patience and anticipating what is going to happen. "

According to Raquel, the regulation of behavior is a vital objective, as a mother, in an application like VirTEA. "I think it is very important to direct children to overcome fears, anticipate things that will happen ... that is why this application is so good, because it goes beyond the pictogram," he says. "The child may be seeing the pictogram, but with this application he is immersed in what is going to happen."

"Emma's therapist was testing the application at the last AETAPI Congress in Cartagena, and says that the application is great, that it looks very good. Note that the biggest impediment that I saw was the glasses, but at the moment 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 introduced VirTEA to a group of family members and the general response has been very positive," Felipe told us during the visit to his offices. "In fact, they have made very interesting suggestions and they are constantly proposing new scenarios to us. But we want to be cautious, each case is different and soon we will start testing more people with ASD, in order to better refine the operation of the application" .

The difficulties of capturing an unknown reality

These normal events can be a problem for a person with ASD, although they do not manifest the same for all people with the disorder. This, which is VirTEA's most ambitious scenario, is also one of the most promising, although these three are not the only ones. "We have several more proposals that family and specialists have made us, such as traveling by plane, an appointment with the gynecologist, attending a birthday party ...", says Felipe. "The list is long and they never stop proposing different situations to us."

The biggest challenge, according to Felipe, has been the creation of content itself. "Many times we have to consider 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. That is why we are in constant contact with specialists, and we reformulate many of the functionalities to adapt them as best as possible. "

"For example," he insists, "on the hairdresser stage, the sound was not present enough because we were unaware of how stressful the noise of scissors can be in the ear of a person with ASD. It is not enough just to hear them As an ambient sound, we are going to make this sound more present and rotate around the user, as in reality. "

The configuration of the situations is important. Thus, the team has created several options to adapt the software to different sessions and create small changes that help accustom people with ASD to these situations. "Among the parameters that can be configured", explains Felipe, "are the representation of the user in the pictograms as male or female, the duration of the waiting time, whether it is in a waiting room or on the street itself, the period where you are sitting in the dentist's or barber's chair and the lighting, which can be warmer and brighter as in summer, or cooler and dull as on a winter afternoon. "

"Our idea is to release a first version with the scenarios of the dentist, the hairdresser and the street," he says, "and continue developing new content. The application will be available for desktop VR, for HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and other glasses, as well as mobile VR. " The idea behind this strategy, they explain, is that the tool reaches everyone. But we will talk about that a little later.

The million dollar question: is it useful?

The idea is good, and the promise is even better. But to know how useful it is we need to speak to an expert. "The development is being supervised by ASTRADE specialists and by the Autism Specific Orientation Team of the Region of Murcia. In both cases, they are helping us to better identify specific problems to ensure that the application is better adapted to the objective we intend "Felipe tells us.

We have contacted José Javier González Jaén, who has a degree in psychology and has been tutoring students with ASD at the Reina Sofía Comprehensive Center for more than seven years now. In addition to having worked with several of his students using VirTEA, to tell us about his experience on behalf of ASTRADE.

José Javier and one of his students in one of the tests

"When we started with the project, and they presented me with the application, it seemed to me a quite positive tool, which could help us achieve very satisfactory results for boys with Autism Spectrum Disorder." According to the expert, this type of application allows for a more complete intervention in a controlled context of the center, addressing situations that are potentially stressful for someone with ASD.

"I know that in cities like Barcelona or Bilbao clinical interventions are carried out in specific phobias treatments with quite optimal results," he explains when asked about the usefulness of VR as a tool. "Therefore, virtual reality is shown as one more tool to lean on in clinical practice. Although it should be noted that, as with other techniques, the same results are probably not obtained in all those people who are I applied ".

Felipe with the Autism Specific Orientation Team of the Murcia Region

"Regarding the scope of the ASD population," he continues, "I believe that the main benefit it reports is the possibility of carrying out a treatment with high control of the situation, and also allows us to carry out a screening of the emotions or states that the boy is experiencing at the time of the test. This allows us to achieve a better adaptation to similar situations and a joint work in the emotional adjustment of circumstances. I think the strong point of the application is the therapeutic movement capacity that it gives us and the new opportunities it gives us to offer a more complete intervention. "

As the psychologist explains, there are very few studies in the ASD population, compared to the number of studies in other populations. "Research in ASD has been scarce. On whether there are other specific works in virtual reality with this population, I would not dare to give a resounding no, but I think not. However, in this field, as in others within the TEA, there is a lot to do. " "After studying how the market was," explains Felipe, from Answare Tech, "and the investigations that were being carried out, we saw that there were several works in this regard."

"Most of the publications," he continues, "are from British and American universities and, although interest in VR is growing every day, there is still a long way to go. Both ASTRADE and the Autism Specific Orientation Team of the Region of Murcia are interested in doing research in this field. " José Javier himself tells us that surely, in the future, his work will be reflected in a study: "Today the way in which the intervention will be carried out is being studied, we are working on creating action protocols to lead to I carry out the treatment appropriately and in the way in which all the data obtained from those sessions will be recorded in order to be able to document the achievement of results in the future ".

Virtual reality for everyone

Another question that we cannot avoid asking is how the application will be distributed. First of all, if we don't have VR glasses, how can we use VirTEA? This implies a high cost, of course. This is where the mobile application comes in, according to what the Software Engineer. "The project started with a focus on desktop VR 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 purchasing 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 is expensive," he continues. As he explains, this has led to the development of an App for all households. "We are doing tremendous optimization work, and we are very close to being able to offer a mobile VR version, targeting cheaper devices."

The company's intention 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 aimed at institutions, organizations and companies. The other will be for mobile phones, 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 wide personal variability, such as the ASD population," José Javier explains when asked about this issue, "and also, being a team to a certain extent costly, I think that apart from reaching families or homes directly, you should choose 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 one must be systematic when starting the program in order to see desired and beneficial results," he concludes. "It is something that is worked with the specialist [waiting training]," says Raquel, "but it is also something that parents can work on. The scientific evidence, today, is with family-centered therapy, it is I mean, the specialist is there, but the family also has to do therapy with the children. Therefore, I think it is something that parents can also use without problems. "

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