Elizabeth Becker ‘04, associate professor of psychology and special assistant to the provost at Lawrence University, has published research that explores using virtual reality (VR) games to help adults on the autism spectrum reduce stress.

“It’s very hot off the presses,” Becker said of the study.

The research, which began while Becker was a faculty member and behavioral neuroscience program director at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, studied the use of VR games powered by exercise bikes as a means of lowering stress levels in adults with autism. The results are promising.

“I’ve been researching for more than 20 years, and I find that this has been the most rewarding and fulfilling project that I have ever engaged with because of its direct implications for people,” said Becker, who joined the Lawrence faculty in 2020.

Autism is a developmental condition. While everyone on the autism spectrum is unique, common challenges include trouble interpreting facial expressions and body language. Too much stimulation such as sounds or lights can be overwhelming. Common strengths, however, include niche but passionate interests.

To bust some common myths: People with autism don’t lack emotions—they may simply express them differently than others. Decreased socialization may also be due to social anxiety rather than disinterest. Autism is also a lifelong condition that is present at birth—it’s not caused by childhood experiences like vaccines, and it is not something that can be “cured.”

Becker is a developmental neuroendocrinologist, which means she studies hormones and how they affect the brain’s development. This interest in neuroscience began when she was a student at Lawrence.

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While Becker finished the autism research study after joining the Lawrence faculty, her work began as a collaborative study with colleagues at St. Joseph’s. She was an affiliate of the university’s Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support, where adults on the spectrum can join a day program that focuses on life skills for living independently, such as money management, cooking, laundry, and job training.

“There are so many more resources for young kids on the autism spectrum; adults are this tremendously underserved and understudied population,” Becker said. “For individuals on the autism spectrum, there is a lot of literature suggesting more chronic levels of stress, and high stress leads to a whole host of negative health outcomes.”

Noticing participants’ love of video games, Becker and her collaborators tried figuring out how to combine video games with the stress-relieving benefits of exercise. Ultimately, they used VR games with a variety of themes, and an exercise bike peripheral. With the games powered by pedaling, participants would play and report their experiences. Salivary cortisol levels, a biological marker of stress, were examined pre and post intervention to see if stress levels change in response to exercise.

“To me, what’s exciting about this work, as compared to my animal research, is that it’s not only translational, but directly applied,” Becker said.

There’s a wide range of people on the autism spectrum, Becker said. Some, but not all, are nonverbal, meaning they have not learned or choose not to speak. For nonverbal participants, Becker said they were able to report their willingness to participate in the study through non-verbal methods (nodding yes) and via their caregivers.

“We want to be mindful that we’re not being exploitative in any way,” Becker said.

Becker said participants and families overall reported enjoying the "exer-gaming," and reductions in the stress hormone cortisol were observed, particularly for those who had higher levels of baseline cortisol.  An unexpected benefit was increased socialization. Most frequently documented were instances of participants verbally encouraging one another as they played the games. One day, two participants started singing together during their session and they persisted in singing a song throughout the rest of the sessions.

“It was cool to see the guys were all of a sudden chatting with each other and cheering for each other during those sessions,” Becker said. “It was really gratifying to see that we could facilitate social connections through engaging in these activities.”

Becker said her biggest remaining question is how long these benefits last. Becker also said all participants identified as male, which limits the research because autism can present differently in different genders. Nevertheless, Becker is optimistic about future opportunities to learn from those on the spectrum.

Making a difference

A native of Ohio, Becker was a voice performance major when she first came to Lawrence. But she took an intro to psychology class from Matt Ansfield in her first year and loved it.

“I was really hooked,” Becker said. “I started working with Dr. Bruce Hetzler around that time, and the rest is history.”

Hetzler retired from the Lawrence faculty in 2019 after 42 years on teaching.

Becker said her return to teach at her alma mater has been amazing. She loves that professors and students are constantly learning from each other.

“What I love about Lawrentians in particular is that students show up to class very hungry to learn, and I think it’s a stimulating environment to be in,” she said.

Becker said she isn’t yet sure if or how this specific research project will continue. Nevertheless, she wants to keep ties with her former colleagues at St. Joseph’s and Marquette University and continue helping those on the autism spectrum as much as she can.

“I think the Appleton community would be a really interesting place to tap into,” Becker said.

She said this type of VR-based project could help neurodivergent people navigate other stressful scenarios such as police interactions.

“We saw a real difference for our participants, and our goal now is to share it as broadly as we can,” Becker said.