"It's intense, isn't it?"
Flashing lights, screeching noises, disorienting colors.
That is what 10-year-old Alex Marshall saw, heard, and felt — not while playing an intense video game or watching an action flick on the big screen, but while standing in the middle of a shopping center with his mom.
Many people on the autism spectrum — people like Alex — have varying issues with sensory input. That is, they may be over- or under-sensitive to sights, sounds, and other stimuli around them. An everyday experience like walking down an aisle in the mall can be overwhelming.
The U.K.-based National Autistic Society recently set up a virtual reality experience to give mall shoppers a taste of what someone like Alex may experience during an everyday errand in public:
A virtual reality experience doesn't mean others can truly know what having autism feels like, of course. And not every person on the autism spectrum experiences sensory sensitivities the same way (or at all). But still — this video can make a big difference.
The National Autistic Society wants more people to have a better understanding of what life is like for people like Alex.
When our understanding of another person's experience deepens, so does our empathy for them.
"Autism is complex and autistic people and their families don’t expect or want people to be experts," Mark Lever, chief executive of the organization, said in a statement regarding the campaign.
But, he said, a "basic understanding could transform lives."
Lever noted that while many people don't want to be judgmental of those with autism, they often fail to "see the autism" in others. Instead, they simply see a "strange" man acting out in public or a stubborn child who refuses to listen to their parent.
As the shoppers concluded after trying out the virtual reality simulator, however, we shouldn't let preconceived notions about "normalcy" dictate how we view others who may be simply experiencing the world differently.
The simulation "just shows you the panic," one woman said. "How they feel. You don't realize how they feel."
Learn more about autism and how you can help the world become a more welcoming place for people like Alex at the National Autistic Society's website.