NAS autism VR experienceA new virtual reality (VR) experience has been launched that demonstrates to the public what being in a shopping centre can feel like for an autistic person.

The Autism TMI VR Experience made its debut on June 9 at the intu Trafford Centre in Manchester, and is run by the National Autistic Society (NAS) as part of its Too Much Information (TMI) campaign, launched in April to increase public understanding of autism. It follows on from the charity’s viral success of its ‘Can you make it to the end?’ film which was seen by nearly 60 million people and followed 10-year-old Alex Marshall having a meltdown in a shopping centre. 

The VR allows people to go through that experience from Alex’s point of view. Like the film, it was made with creative agency Don’t Panic, and highlights the details that can feel overwhelming for autistic people but which others might not even notice, like the flickering of lights or the rustling of bags. The film and VR were put together from people’s real experiences and feedback from the autistic community. Autistic people praised the film, one person saying it showed "what’s in my head."  

The launch of the Autism TMI VR Experience coincided with intu Trafford Centre becoming the first shopping centre in the UK to receive the NAS’ new Autism Friendly Award. The VR experience will also tour the UK at intu’s 15 shopping centres and other venues this summer.

As well as trying the VR during the tour, people will be able to download an app that they can use with their phone and ‘Google Cardboard’ goggles. The charity has also created a special pack for schools, including goggles, the app and an accompanying lesson plan, to use as a resource to teach students about autism. A similar pack will be circulated to MPs.

More than 1 in 100 people are on the autism spectrum. This means that someone sees, hears and feels the world in a different, often more intense, way to other people. Autistic people often find social situations difficult and struggle to filter out the sounds, smells, sights and information they experience, which means they can feel overwhelmed by ‘too much information’, particularly when out in public.

The NAS’ research showed that when this happens, the public can tut, stare or make hurtful remarks, because they don’t understand enough about autism. This leaves autistic people and their families feeling isolated. This is why the charity is using VR to create an experience that will help increase understanding.

Alex, the star of the campaign film, said: “I hate being in crowds and surrounded by too many people. Sometimes I need a lot of room, and when someone brushes past me, it’s as bad as someone pushing me. Small things can make me overwhelmed and have a meltdown. 

“I’ve loved being part of the National Autistic Society’s film, it was like winning the lottery 20 gazillion times and I’m really excited about the VR so I can show my friends how things feel for me. 

“It really helps when people understand things, and this is a really cool way to do it – you can just show someone inside your head! When someone’s seen what it’s like, I think they’ll know why I get overwhelmed, and then they’ll understand that I’m not being naughty.”

Mark Lever, chief executive of the NAS, added: “Half of autistic people and their families sometimes or often don’t leave their houses because they are worried about how others will respond to their autism. 

“We launched our Too Much Information campaign in April because our research indicates that hundreds of thousands of autistic people are ending up isolated and lonely due to poor public understanding of autism. 

“The public want to be empathetic to autistic people, but often they just don’t ‘see’ the condition and may mistake an autistic person melting down in public for someone being deliberately disruptive. 

“To help the public understand a little more about autism, we’re really excited to be the first charity using virtual reality to demonstrate what this aspect of autism can feel, see and sound like. Virtual reality is such a fantastic medium and we want to use it to help people identify with a young autistic boy who is having a crisis in a shopping centre.

“A wider understanding of autism would be transformational for the 700,000 autistic people in the UK and their families, and we know that seeing things from their point of view even for a minute will inspire the public to hold back on tuts or stares when they see someone melting down in public.”