Virtual Reality Video Shows What It’s Like to Be Autistic

google virtual reality headset VR
A Google employee dons a virtual reality headset during the opening an event in Paris on January 21. The tech giant is reportedly planning to unveil a high-end VR headset at its annual developers conference. ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images

Footsteps echo thunderously with what seems like a sonic wave rolling at the heels. Multicolored balloons glow and shine bright to the point that they appear white. A constant ringing noise gets louder. A few coins are dropped by accident and they strike like cannon fire. Breathing becomes harder and the field of vision begins to narrow.

What should be unnoticeable occurrences in most people’s daily lives can be a struggle for those who live with autism. On Thursday, the National Autistic Society (NAS) in the U.K. released a short virtual reality film that allows the nonautistic to experience these episodes of sensory overload.

(Warning: the video has bright, sudden flashes and loud, sudden noises.)

The video was “created with autistic people to help give you an idea what it can be like to get too much information,” it says at the outset. Following the success of its standard video trailer on sensory overloads, which was viewed over 2 million times, the NAS made a virtual reality film as a more immersive follow-up.

The virtual reality film works on both iOS and Android and is compatible with any cardboard goggles, including Google Cardboard.

“Sometimes, autistic people become overloaded by everything around them. Which can make the outside world feel like a terrifying place. And for their families, all the looks, judgments and tuts make it feel like a lonely and isolated place,” NAS said in a statement. “But now, with state of the art technology, we're helping people to get an even more immersive experience.”

One in 45 children in the United States are diagnosed with some level of autism, according to a 2015 government survey. Sensory overloads are one of the key symptoms in identifying autistism.

Virtual reality games and training programs have long been used to teach social skills for autistic children and adults, such as looking both ways at a street before crossing it. Virtual reality also has been used to fight crippling phobias.

For those who live with other disabilities, virtual reality has opened doors to possibilities that were unimaginable a few years ago. A person with muscular dystrophy can “surf” in the ocean or learn to play the piano just with their eyes.

For those without disabilities, a subset of empathy exercises—like experiencing what it is like to have a migraine headache—have been around since the 1990s but are increasing in quantity and quality. But some researchers are skeptical that those exercises permanently change attitudes toward those with a certain medical condition.