Phone 01761 412198
Email office@tbmpts.com

Virtual Reality Technology used by Autistic groups

For much of 2018, the Mendip School (TMS) were collaborators on a research project with UWE.  This was titled: Virtual Reality Technology used by Autistic groups.  This primarily aimed to explore the potential of virtual reality technology to support social skills for people with autism through a pilot feasibility study examining the views of children (ages six to 16)  This was achieved through working with TMS and their pupils in asking their views of three types of virtual reality head-mounted displays (HMD).  We worked with a range of pupils and collected data that addressed three key areas:

Key areas:

  1. Which device was most/least preferred?
  2. Are there any sensory or negative effects associated with the hardware (VR HMD)?
  3. Would the pupils like to use the HMDs in their learning/classrooms?

We found that the higher-end (that is most expensive and highest quality) HMD was most preferred with a very low-tech option (Google Cardboard) the 2nd most preferred.  This was coupled with very limited (if any) reported negative effects, while enjoyment using the HMD and willingness/desire to use it again were reported as very high.  In addition, pupils reported they would like to use the equipment again.  Areas that came up most, for application of VR, was for relaxing/meditation, learning about places they’ve not visited before, and to help alleviate fears of going somewhere unusual.  In short, the highlights/key findings were:

Highlights:

  • Autistic children reported HTC Vive as their preferred device for engaging with VR.
  • Autistic children identified VR being most useful for relaxing and calming contexts.
  • No reported negative effects by autistic children and none observed.
  • High levels of enjoyment and comfort using HMDs were reported.

In summary, this study and the data reported shed some important light of the perspectives and views of autistic children (and their teachers).  In this context, we have better located the types of HMDs technologies that might be most successful in schools for autistic children.  We suggest that based on the feedback (from pupils and teachers) that low-tech options such as cardboard HMDs coupled with a smartphone could be an appropriate first-step into using VR to transport pupils to various environments to augment their learning.  In addition, the finding that VR HMDs might be most usefully received as a form of meditation, we also suggest careful thought about using VR in schools for this might provide access to a quick and easy methods to help reduce stress and increase calming feelings for autistic children.  This of course needs validating, but the feedback we received in our project seems to suggest that VR could work well in this domain.

Virtual reality HMDs need careful thought too.  We found that while teachers were excited and happy to see VR used with their pupils, there was limited ownership of the technology.  In other words, the researchers would operate and deploy the technology.  In assisting the field and moving the state of the art ahead, there might be a need to consider ways to help enable teachers to use this technology and feel confident in diagnosing problems and tackling the various concerns that come with any emerging technology.

We then worked with a small local company, GoVirtually, to develop an “accessible” tour of We the Curious in Bristol (see more here: https://www.wethecurious.org/accessibility).  This was a VR tour of the museum that TMS pupils could use before they visited in person.  Again, we located data that suggested this helped with anxiety and worries about visiting the physical space for the first time.

Overall, a successful project that brings about several implications for practice and findings that will help to move the field of autism, technology and learning forward.

Some links to the work and publications are here:

  1. National Autistic Society (NAS) presentation by Nigel and Iian (https://network.autism.org.uk/sites/default/files/ckfinder/files/Virtual%20Reality%20head-mounted%20displays%20for%20autistic%20children%20in%20the%20classroom%20-%20Nigel%20Newbutt%20and%20Iian%20Conley.pdf)
  2. A how to guide we developed for the NAS: https://network.autism.org.uk/knowledge/insight-opinion/using-virtual-reality-autistic-pupils

Contact: Iian Conley (iconley@themendipschool.com) or

Dr Nigel Newbutt (nigel.newbutt@uwe.ac.uk)
Senior Lecturer and Senior Researcher in Digital Education

Department of Education & Childhood
Room 3S410

University of the West of England,

Frenchay Campus, Bristol. BS16 1QY.

Office: +44 (0)117 32 87881