Recently a fantastic student of mine was awarded a mark of 80% in her Masters dissertation project – extrememly rare at this level and in this case utterly deserved. Her project focused on creating an authentic (note – not necessarily the same as accurate) simulation tool to help people without autism gain insight into some of the sensory experiences commonly experienced by autistic people. Such simulators are contraversial but also increasingly prevalent. We like to think that our in-depth engagement with the autism community at all stages of the project, and my student’s neurodiverse family background, has helped us avoid some of the pitfalls of projects like this, but we’re also keen to hear your thoughts. Here she blogs about her experience on the project.
I sat back to trying to imagine myself being a person with Autism, “What would I need? What could help me on a daily basis?”. It was then I realised that inspite of having three summers of experience working with Autism, family members on the spectrum and too much of an active imagination for my own good at times, this was an extremely difficult task. If I had training and experience yet still struggled, how ever could it be expected of members of the public or even new trainees?
From creating the simulation I have learnt more about Autism than ever imagined and acquired other unexpected benefits; I feel much closer to my family. I became more patient, more aware, more able to adjust to their needs and more confident within myself and my interactions with them. It was one thing to read about autism and sensory overloads, I’d heard it all before over the years, but once I started creating a visual picture described to me by people with autism, I was taken aback. There was a difference between knowing the facts and understanding what they mean for an individual to experience them, a difference between “knowing the path and walking the path” (in the great words of Morpheus from the Matrix). Everything I’d been told over the years clicked into place and I was met with new unprecedented feelings of respect and admiration.
The simulation itself takes place in a home environment and the user’s goal is to complete ‘missions’ whilst navigating obstacles and hazards. The strategies that the user could employ were never hard-coded into the system and it was left for users to work out themselves within the restrictions and bounds imposed. During evaluations participants tended to do three things: run through the simulation quickly until overloads occurred; identify hazards such as lights and turn them off; or finally, move around with the camera (the users “eyes”) steered away from hazards such as lights so as to not be affected.
It was interesting that participants were spontaneously deriving strategies themselves that people with autism had described and clarified. After evaluations I had the opportunity to discuss the simulator with participants, during which one participant asked “Does this mean I should offer them a quiet room when they come to meet?”. There were more questions of similar nature and it was great to see people thinking of applications of the knowledge they had gained from navigating the simulation environment.
The point of the simulation is not to create a picture of what it is like to have autism – this is an impossible task, as it would be for any such category. Each individual is different and complex. Instead we aimed to create a fun learning environment which can raise awareness of sensory differences and encourage thinking about how a person with autism might adjust to deal with these. If playing a 15 minute simulation can impart just one tiny piece of the compassion and understanding I acquired over these last two years of development whilst alleviating some of the frustrations that arise from lack of understand at times, then really technology can have no greater success.