AUTISM AND ANXIETY: HOW INTERACTIVE AVATARS REDUCE ANXIETY

How an innovative performance animation technology can improve learning outcomes by encouraging young autistics to better understand and lower their anxiety.

Anxiety and autism are connected. Around four in every ten young autistics have either clinically elevated levels of anxiety or an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. 

Anxiety can make it difficult for someone to regulate their emotions and reduce their motivation to be social. What’s more, stress makes learning hard. Anxious people have more difficulty acquiring, retaining, and applying new information. For many autistics seeking therapy, anxiety is a formidable roadblock to their personal success.  

In Avatar Adventures, a member of the Invirtua team shows up in a home-based video call as an interactive avatar, who becomes a “sidekick” for an autistic client. The presence of the avatar reduces anxiety and, thereby, makes sessions more rewarding for both autistic kids (ages 5 – 16) and their parents. 

With less anxiety weighing them down, young autistics approach the learning process with more self-confidence. Whether clients are working on their social, motivational, or communicative skills, self-confidence allows them to reach their goals faster and enjoy the experience.

In this first article in a three-part series on autism and anxiety, we’d like to show you how Invirtua’s learning framework can help guide young autistics to better understand and reduce their anxiety.

A Good Avatar Is a Great Friend

Invirtua’s Avatar Adventures provide clients with experiences and lessons that help them learn how to better regulate their emotions, reduce their anxiety levels, and build their self-confidence.

Let’s put this another way: Fearful persons look out into the world through dirty windows, clouded by anxieties. Invirtua’s learning framework helps them clean these windows by removing the obstacles that prevent young autistics from seeing who they are in reality and, perhaps more so, the potential within themselves.

But how do interactive avatars do this exactly? Simply put, they serve as a source of social motivation. Avatars speak to the child’s interests. Whether a young autistic likes cartoons, animals, or video games, Invirtua’s avatars are ready to join them for an adventure.

With remote sessions in particular, interactive avatars bring to life the space between client and counselor. What was previously a static screen is now a dynamic portal to a world of interaction, communication, and learning through play.

By connecting the avatar to the client’s interests, sessions become both more exciting and less nerve-wracking. Bringing an interactive avatar into a session gives the client a supportive friend to have by their side, increasing the child’s motivation to participate.

This is where we see the Invirtua Effect: When communicating with the avatar, an autistic child is able to engage, communicate, and problem-solve in a low-pressure environment, which helps lower anxiety. Interactive avatars help autistics discover and experience their own ability to regulate their emotions and, by extension, their behavior.

Referring to the Feelings Wheel below, Avatar Adventures provide the experiences young autistics need to move themselves away from the outer circle of intense emotions, so they can give themselves a bit of space to reflect on whatever situation they’re in, use logic, and respond not impulsively, but carefully. Of course, responding deliberately is a skill that takes time to master—no matter who you are. But even small improvements in this area can go a long ways towards building self-confidence.

Feelings Wheel

The Feelings Wheel is used to help people navigate their emotions. It’s an easier way to regulate emotional experiences by understanding visually, the related experiences we might be feeling, and how these feelings are either stronger or weaker, in the moment.

This region of the Feelings Wheel (below) is the area of concern when it comes to autism and anxiety, where feelings of fearfulness and overwhelm are all too common in everyday life. To regulate is to reduce the intensity and duration of the negative feelings in order to experience more positive ones.

Feelings Wheel - Anxiety

The Avatar Becomes a Sidekick

The benefits presented by interactive avatars are not immediate. It can take time to build trust between the avatar and child. Sometimes, the Invirtua team needs to try out several different avatars in order to find the best fit for a young autistic.

Achieving the Invirtua Effect isn’t like flipping on a light switch. It takes a series of interactions with the avatar that build on each other. These interactions involve not only the child and avatar but also the parents, teachers, and all other parties who want to see the young autistic thrive. Avatar Adventures encourages involvement from the parents of autistic children. The more that parents get involved with their child’s Avatar Adventure, the more they can see the benefits of the Invirtua Effect at home. 

Once a foundation of trust has been established, clients start looking forward to sessions because of the avatar’s presence. Feelings of anxiousness are replaced by excitement, and the path towards improved self-confidence becomes clear.

In cases where the Invirtua team has collaborated with professional therapists, progress towards the client’s therapeutic goals has even been enhanced thanks to the interactive avatars. Research from Brigham Young University has demonstrated that autistic children have improved learning outcomes when avatars are involved. For more information on how Invirtua has worked alongside licensed therapists to great effect, take a look at Hayley’s Story

Every Avatar Adventure Is Unique

Invirtua’s interactive avatars are backed by a range of instructional programs that can be tailored to the needs of individual clients. With six distinct conversational, social, and motivational programs based on the practices of professional therapists, Invirtua is prepared to support anyone on the ASC spectrum between the ages of 5 and 16.

Here’s how Invirtua’s learning framework looks in action:

  • First, the topic and content of the conversations between the avatar and the client are prepared in advanced. The underlying structure of individual sessions are developed based on a client’s specific needs using tried-and-true counseling methods. (Note: We want to make sure parents understand that Invirtua staff are not licensed counselors, but have received training from professionals/experts in autism.)
  • Second, Invirtua, working with parents (as well as others who may be involved in the autistic client’s sessions like teachers and therapists), develops goals based on the child’s needs. Session goals are tracked and can be adjusted if necessary.
  • Third, Invirtua keeps parents in the loop at all times, including using documents that reflect what’s going on within sessions and what sort of progress is being made.

It’s important to note that Avatar Adventures do not aim to ‘fix’ autistic people. Invirtua’s learning framework fosters a young autistic’s ability to lower their anxiety levels, which then leads to improved focus, greater self-confidence, and an increased ability to engage with the world around them.

The Invirtua team doesn’t want autistics to suppress or ignore their feelings! It’s how we learn to manage our fears and worries that allows us to flourish.​

Avatar in McDonald's

Working with avatars in simulations can be very effective for autistic children of all ages. They are given a safe place to learn and practice, where their anxiety melts away and they can quickly learn how to interact and hold productive conversations fearlessly.

What Autism Therapy Looks Like With and Without Anxiety

The Invirtua Effect does more than just reduce anxiety. Invirtua can also help make autism therapy more effective for young autistics who would otherwise be held back by their feelings of unease.

When children (and adults for that matter) are less anxious, they’re able to learn more and apply what they’ve been studying with confidence. Avatar Adventures take the pressure out of the learning process, so kids approach their education with enthusiasm.

When anxiety is present, autism therapy tends to be frustrating, discouraging, and tiresome. Avatar Adventures helps reduce anxiety and demonstrates that autism therapy can be fun, empowering, and rewarding. Because anxiety has such a strong effect on the learning process, Invirtua makes it a priority to help clients feel calm, secure, and supported.

Without having their thinking clouded by stress and nerves, young autistics are able to focus on their learning goals. Anxiety-free autism therapy benefits the client no matter what their specific goal is. Whether someone on the ASC spectrum is aiming to learn something new, improve their social skills, or gain self-confidence, it’s easier—and more enjoyable—to do so without anxiety weighing them down. 

Let’s take, for example, a young teen who wants to have an easier time ordering a meal at a fast-food restaurant. At first, this client has trouble overcoming his anxiety. To him, ordering a burger and a shake is like performing in a theater. He gets stage fright.

Even an exercise that simulates the act of ordering a meal can be a challenge for him. He’s looking at another person. He’s worrying about saying the right words, in the right tone, at the right time. “You can’t afford to make a mistake here!” His anxiety tells him.

But, with the interactive avatar, he can practice and receive supportive guidance without fear of being overwhelmed or criticized. He feels comfortable talking to the avatar—they’re on the same team after all. Maybe he forgets a few words or needs to retrace his steps a bit, but he orders the burger and he orders the shake, and everything turns out okay. He asks to give it another try. As his nervousness decreases, his self-confidence increases. Instead of fearing the situation, he feels empowered and in control of his emotions.

How Reducing Anxiety Kick-starts a Positive Feedback Loop

What makes the Invirtua Effect especially impactful is how it simultaneously helps autistics let go of anxiety and gain self-confidence.

Here’s how the Invirtua Effect enables autistics to overcome feelings of distress and anxiety:

  • First, the presence of an interactive avatar reduces anxiety.
  • Second, a less anxious client has more productive sessions.
  • Lastly, having more productive sessions makes clients more confident and less anxious.
  • Less anxiety leads to more productivity and vice versa.

In other words, once a young autistic’s anxiety starts to decrease, sessions get easier and easier. Invirtua’s clients have made incredible progress by learning in this relaxed setting. And being able to see their efforts pay off helps their self-confidence grow.

How Parents Can Use the Invirtua Effect

The Invirtua Effect isn’t restricted to Avatar Adventures. Parents can get involved too!

Here are some steps parents can take to help their child manage anxiety outside of sessions and apply the lessons learned within them:

  • Seek opportunities for conversation with your child about their Avatar Adventures, the interactive avatar, and their sources of anxiety
  • Encourage your child to practice skills learned in sessions by telling them you’re proud of the effort they’re making
  • Join the Autism Animated community to interact with other parents of autistic children and learn more about the condition
  • Work with the Invirtua team to help develop learning goals that are ideal for your child
  • Ask the Invirtua team about our “Family Circle,” where family members of your choice can join video calls and share in the experience

By working with therapists, parents, and our autistic clients, Invirtua’s Avatar Adventures make learning less stressful and more rewarding. With your help, we can give your child the tools they need to build their self-confidence and manage their anxiety.

Do you like what you’ve learned so far? Stay tuned for part two of this three-part series on autism and anxiety: “Common Anxieties of Autistics.” Invirtua Senior Partner Leslie Baldwin contributes her expertise to this informative piece on the types of anxieties common among autistics.

Andrew Ciampi is an content writer based in the state of Washington. His areas of interest include the autism spectrum, emerging technologies (practical or recreational), and the transportation/trucking sector. You can find his professional writings here on Invirtua and at Relaymile.com.

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