Virtually Real: VR and the Autistic Brain

Young white girl looking through a virtual reality headset in a bedroom.

When we were kids, being INSIDE a video game was the stuff of fantasies. But now it’s real. The hardware of virtual reality (VR) is still clunky, heavily-wired, and low-resolution– but we HAVE it.

“So what?” I thought. Honestly, the thought of having life-sized people shoot me from all sides in a 3-D environment didn’t tempt me in the least.

VR games list: Serious Sam VR: The Last Hope, Serious Sam 3 VR: BFE, Zero Caliber VR, Five nights at freddy's VR, Furious Seas.

Like many autistic people, I prefer low-stimulation, low-anxiety games. I’m not the kind of person that virtual reality would appeal to.

…Or so I thought.

Now, I think that VR might be one of the best inventions for autistic people out there.

I’m not the only one. VR is being studied for its potential applications for autism.

Not all of them strike me as wise, like attempts to use VR to teach autistic kids social interaction— because a creepy uncanny-valley computer-human is a better teacher than an actual person?

A more-promising line of thought lies in the attempt to create VR simulations of what it is like to be autistic.

I think it’s a fun idea– as long as it has actual autistic people involved in its creation.

But honestly, you don’t need a VR autism simulation program to get an idea of how it feels to be in my head.

All you have to do is put on the headset.

I discovered VR at a library trivia night that my partner and I attend every year. I enjoy this event, but it’s also very intimidating and overstimulating for me, so I was very on edge.

The library had just acquired a VR headset and was letting everyone try it out. When it was my turn, I sat down in the chair and the librarian put the headset on me– and suddenly…

I was under the sea.

Five mantis rays swimming in the ocean.

I love being under the water– I’ve been swimming as long as I can remember, and I used to live in the Caribbean and snorkeled almost every weekend.

Now I was under the sea, looking up at the sun sparkling through the waves.

Then I heard people talking to me.

“Stop staring at the sun! Look to your left!”

I turned to my left and saw a whale swimming toward me and experienced for the first time the sheer scale of a blue whale.

The eye of a large whale
close up screenshot of a blue whale’s eye

Now, the entire time I was having this experience, I was also aware of the real world.

I could feel the chair I was sitting in, hear the Librarian and the spectators talking, smell the booky smell of the library… I knew where I was in physical space. But at the same time I was immersed in this world that only I could really fully experience.

That felt familiar=- because that’s already how I live my life.

Numerous studies have found differences between autistic brains and non-autistic brains.

Studies of autistic children find more synapse connections than in non-autistic brains. They have also found that when autistic synapses fire, the signal lasts longer than in a non-autistic brain– like holding down the sustain pedal on a piano.

Scientists have hypothesized that autistic brains are over-connected, like a cluttered house.

It can make the goings-on inside our brains very intense, and it can make processing input from the outside world very jangly and confusing.

When I was a child, my mother would threaten to get my hearing tested because if I was reading or lost in thoughts, I legitimately wouldn’t notice that she was talking to me.

My ears could hear, but the sound was lost in the noise that came from my own thoughts.

My husband now has the same problem. He has learned that I have an eight second lag between when he speaks to me and when I respond, especially if I’m absorbed in a task or reading something.

Other times I won’t respond at all, but when he prompts me, I will be able to think for a minute and then pull the memory of his speech from my mind. Then, I’ll be able to tell him what he said, like rewinding a video to find something you missed the first time around.

It takes effort to pay full attention to the real world– kind of like holding your hand in a basin of ice water. When I am fully in the real world, I feel exposed and sometimes bombarded. I retreat into my head, trying put a barrier between me and the realness of the world.

Sometimes I want to be fully immersed in reality but the fascinating thoughts in my head suck me back in. It’s like trying to listen to a lecture while your favourite TV show is playing.

Other times the real world can be offensively intrusive. People keep yanking me out of my head to answer questions or perform required actions. It’s like having people wake you up every time you start to drift off, or constantly being forced to shut off the movie you’re watching so you can perform trivial tasks.

I’ve been trying for years to properly describe what it is like to be in my head, how comfortable it is in there, how unpleasant the real world can sometimes be, and the effort it takes to ignore the activity inside my brain.

VR is the first thing I’ve seen that properly simulates how it feels to be me.

When you put the VR headset on, the rest of the world fades into the background.

Sure, you know where you are and what you’re doing. You’re still rooted in the real world, but if people want you to do anything else you have to pause what you’re doing and take off the headset so you can see what’s going on.

That’s basically my life.

So if you want to know what it is like to be autistic, put a VR headset on, play something very interesting, while also trying to interact with the people around you as if the VR stuff isn’t actually happening.

There was a second aspect of my experience with VR that blew me away:

Just by putting on this heavy hat, I could make the people around me disappear, and I could be under the sea with only a whale for company.

Just like that! Put the headphones over your ears and turn up the sound and even the sounds of the people disappear. The intrusive world suddenly isn’t so intrusive.

Too intense with the sound? Great! Mute it or turn it down.

The world of VR is customizable to you and your needs. Be where you want, with the sound and brightness levels you want.

Be free.

If you haven’t experienced VR, it may be hard to understand the feeling of SPACE that comes with it. I turn around and there’s no one behind me. The room has disappeared. I am transported.

Just imagine, if you are autistic, the ability to make a room full of people disappear.

To instantly put yourself into a peaceful garden, or an empty beach, or even floating in space.

When you’re feeling crowded or overwhelmed, imagine making all of that just… GO.

That first time, in the library, I was completely entranced. All of my tension about trivia night was gone. When the visor was lifted off of my head, I went right to the back of the line.

I watched the Librarian set up the experience for the next person and spotted an image of a lantern fish on his computer screen.

“Is that a deep sea experience?” I asked. The Deep Sea is a special interest of mine, in particular Giant Squid.

“Yes, but people find that one creepy,” he said. “Nothing really scary happens, but it’s very dark and a large creature does go by. It bothers some people.”

I knew then that this experience contained a giant squid. I started happy flapping in line with excitement.

I don’t happy flap, as a rule. But I did it that time.

When it was finally my turn, I nearly exploded with joy.

A jellyfish in the ocean.

I marvelled at the realistic-looking marine snow that drifted down on me, and I found the glowing jellyfish that surrounded serenely beautiful.

And then the squid appeared, flared its tentacles at me, and glided off again.

I think only another autistic person can really understand how awesome it would be to have an experience like that if you are obsessed with Giant Squid.

A squid in the ocean.

Not only could I transport myself to another world, it could be a world in which I took a special interest.

That’s, like, autism heaven.

My husband took one look at my face when I emerged from the deep sea and said, “So, I take it we’re buying you a VR set?”

Hell. Yes. I needed one.

We had no money, but somehow my husband made it happen.

VR technology is still in its infancy. It is fiddly, full of cords and wires, and expensive as hell.

But my VR set is one of my most prized possessions.

I put on the headset, lower the headphones, and the world that is stressing me disappears.

In the world of VR, you can turn up the volume or turn it down. You can change your location in an instant. You can switch from something exciting and loud to something quiet and peaceful with the click of a button.

I can watch a movie while floating in space or sitting in an empty theatre.

I can play simple and fun games that get me moving and sweating. A form of exercise I actually enjoy!

Studies show that some of these VR games, many of which are not violent or overstimulating, burn as many calories as playing tennis.

I like Beat Sabre, which involves slicing blocks to music with two light sabers. Rhythmic, satisfying, and immersive… and it really gets me sweating.

I also really enjoy Sprint Vector, which has me leaping and flying in a way I wish I could do in real life.

Or if I’m in a mood to just relax I can hang out in an African dawn and watch elephants graze, or sit on a quiet beach.

VR gave me not only a wonderful way to escape reality when it feels like too much, it gave me a way to try and explain my inner world. Then it also gave me a workout that I love and crave– something I never imagined would happen.

With VR I can become weightless. I can fly. I can sit in a the shade of a prehistoric tree and watch pterodactyls flap over my head. I can take on an obstacle course race which combines MarioKart with parkour. I can paint without mess, leap without falling, use planets as bowling balls and land Apollo 11 on the moon.

I’ve always done this type of thing in my head, but it’s wonderful to be able to see it in what appears to be the real world.

More real than what I see in my head, yet not so real that it hurts or overwhelms me… VR is the level of reality that I like the most.

Virtually Real.

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One Response

  1. Thank you for the comparison between the VR experience and your own sensory experience of the world. I’m NT but my partner is ND and he LOVES his VR. I’m very familiar with the under the sea experiences you refer to (the deep sea one is my favourite too. Those glowing jellyfish are truly stunning).

    Your well written article has given me something to ponder and a way to better relate to and understand how he may be feeling at times. Not to mention I’ll be passing a couple of your gaming links on to him! (We both already love Beatsaber). 🙂

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