A virtual reality program based on software originally used to train FBI agents is showing promise in helping adults with autism learn to excel at job interviews, researchers say.

The computer-based program offers individuals on the spectrum the opportunity to conduct a simulated job interview with a virtual human resources representative named Molly Porter. Equipped with voice recognition technology, the software is designed to assess the appropriateness of responses and provide feedback via an on-screen job coach.

Those with autism who practiced their job interviewing skills with the software — which is publicly available — were able to apply what they learned when interviewing with a real person, substantially improving both the responses they provided and their self-confidence, according to findings published online this week in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

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“Adults with an autism spectrum disorder tend to have difficulties with social communication, which may interfere with them having a successful job interview,” said Matthew J. Smith of Northwestern University who led the study. “Our program helps trainees learn to talk about their ability to work as a team member so they sound easy to work with. They also learn how to sound interested and enthusiastic about a potential job, as well as convey that they are a hard worker.”

To prepare users for the various types of interviews they might face, the simulator’s Molly adjusts between three difficulty levels, presenting as friendly, business-oriented or gruff as users advance through the program. Molly also adapts her line of questioning based on the responses users provide.

Each time an interview is completed using the software, the user receives a score and is told they got the job if they earn a 90 or greater.

For the study, 16 young adults with autism used the simulation program to do 15 to 20 practice job interviews, while another 10 individuals on the spectrum ages 18 to 31 did not use the software at all. Each of the adults completed two interviews at the beginning of the study period and two at the end with an actor who was trained to play a human resources professional.

Videos of the interviews with the actor were then reviewed by a human resources expert who was not told which participants trained with the simulator. Overall, individuals who used the software improved 11 percent over the course of the study compared to a 1 percent increase for those in the control group.

When looking more specifically at self-confidence, those who used the simulator improved 22 percent compared to 7 percent for the control group.

“We hope that this training program can improve the employment potential for persons with autism spectrum disorder,” said Michael Fleming, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern who also worked on the study. “Many people with this disorder would like to work but have trouble getting a job.”