Technology and autism are sometimes documented as a well-suited match. The predictable and reliable nature of tech goes hand in hand with the tendency for autistic children to like controllable environments and the chance to create, using games such as Minecraft.
It had been suggested that virtual reality (VR) head-mounted displays (HMDs) could be an opportunity to help autistic young people in day-to-day life but, until recently, no one had conducted any research with the community to find out how.
Dr Nigel Newbutt, senior lecturer and researcher in Digital Education at UWE Bristol wanted to explore VR’s possibilities with autistic people.
VR has the opportunity to be a safe space to test out social interactions without mistakes, to relax people on the spectrum and reduce their anxieties.
An initial study Nigel conducted with autistic people aged between 17 and 53 found that they reported no negative sensory of anxiety effects from using VR headsets and experienced a deep sense of presence and immersion.
“Then I thought about how we could extend the study to see where it could be used,” Nigel explains. “We went to schools across the South and worked with young people aged between six and 16.
“We went to two special needs schools and two mainstream schools because most autistic children are part of the mainstream education system; and so were interested in exploring the views of autistic children in both settings.”
They tested out three different headsets with children on the spectrum. “We engaged with autistic people first. We worked from the ground up to work out which headset was best for them.”
Nigel asked the young people if the VR technology, which simulated simple environments such as looking around an historic setting (i.e. ancient Egypt), useful, as well as their emotional and physical experiences.
With overwhelmingly positive responses from both the autistic children and their teachers, Nigel moved forward using Google Cardboard, a simple and affordable VR HMD.
“UWE Bristol work with a resident of the Bristol VR lab. We worked with them and We The Curious to create a virtual tour of the science centre that a local Shepton Mallet school could use to simulate the experience of visiting the centre before a real life school trip,” says Nigel.
“The children were between ten and 14 and they really enjoyed it. They felt more prepared and knew what to expect. It started giving us an insight into using VR to simulate real life environments.”
Could more schools utilise this cheap VR equipment to prepare anxious and autistic children for school trips? Looking more widely, could this technology be used for other simulated environments?
Nigel is looking at post-16 education, and how young autistic adults can prepare themselves for job interviews. With only 16 per cent of autistic people in full time work and 32 per cent in part time work, this is an excellent opportunity to help people on the spectrum to experience a fully immersive interview with the chance to make mistakes without consequence.
Looking to the future, Nigel nexts steps are to build evidence into VR’s positive effect for the autistic community and to get more people interested in the important research.