Credit: Image by the Guardian

The Guardian’s latest virtual reality (VR) film, The Party, enables audiences to experience what it is like to have autism, by placing them in the shoes of Layla, a newly-diagnosed 15-year-old who is attending her mother’s surprise birthday party.

The Party, the first fully-scripted VR project by the Guardian, was shot on location with more than 25 actors.

Viewers hear Layla’s inner thoughts and concerns while partygoers talk about, around and to her, enabling them to experience her attempts to cope with a stressful situation that causes her anxiety.

Francesca Panetta, executive editor of virtual reality at the Guardian, explained that the publisher wanted to represent the sensory overload that can ensue in such a situation, as well as the preparation and masking techniques young women may use to deal with it.

“By enabling viewers to experience a specific social situation through the eyes of the protagonist – a teenage girl at a birthday party – we hope that it will provide them with an insight into the issues that their autistic peers may be facing," she said.

"We were interested in research that showed that autism may present far more frequently in women than previously thought, leading some scientists to believe that women and girls may have been significantly under-diagnosed, so we wanted to look into this further to see how we could explore the subject via the medium of VR."

The publisher undertook comprehensive research for the film, carrying out focus groups with autistic people and working closely with the National Autistic Society, The Autism Research Trust and the Cambridge University Autism Research Centre to get as many viewpoints as possible on the subject. 

Journalists at the Guardian asked autistic writer Sumita Majumdar to write the script for The Party, the first dramatised piece they had done, as she was able to reflect on her own experiences and knew how the protagonist might react in such an environment.

Viewers see, through Layla's eyes, the build-up to the party, the surprise itself, and her time away from the action downstairs, where she is sat in her quiet room, away from the panic she had experienced downstairs.

"Autism presents in many forms," said Panetta.

"We spent a lot of time discussing this when writing the script, as it would show just one person's experience of autism. Autism is also a spectrum and deciding where to place our protagonist was a huge decision for the team."

The VR experience was shot with the Jump, Google’s stereoscopic 360-degree camera, and is available to watch using Google Cardboard or Daydream. 

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