Children With Autism Using Virtual Reality To Make Sense of Real World

March 17, 2020

For children with autism, new experiences can be stressful or traumatic—and their reactions to those changes can be extreme.

But what if those kids could be eased into the experience? Nuno Guerreiro, a teacher at Prior’s Court Foundation, is exploring that question, using virtual reality to help children acclimate and prepare for everyday situations.

Prior’s Court is a residential school in Thatcham, UK that provides support for children and young adults with severe autism. Many of the children are non-verbal and there aren’t robust teaching tools or technologies that are built specifically for children with the developmental disability.

The VR experiences offered to the students vary, but they help gently introduce them to scenarios they may encounter. Some visit a shopping mall. Others get on an aircraft. Some go skiing (slowly) in a virtual environment, marveling at the nature around them. The most popular is a kite flying 360 video. What’s key is the children experience those new scenarios, without having to leave the familiar ground of their classroom.

“What they’re doing is experiencing things they may never have a chance to go to,” he says.

The school has four VR headsets and students typically spend between 20 minutes and 30 minutes in the VR environment at a time.

The reactions might be hard for people unfamiliar with autism to gauge. Something as simple as a smile or a child talking more comfortably for a short period of time might seem trivial to the casual observer. Guerreiro, though, has been teaching at the school for five years and says he has been very encouraged by the program’s effectiveness since its launch in September 2019.

“It’s difficult to explain because big achievements for them can be very little steps,” he says. “If one of our kids sits down for five minutes without screaming or if they’re smiling, that’s a milestone.”

One thing Guerreiro hopes to do more of in the months and years to come is introduce more VR video games to the children—titles that are not complex and do not have intense moments. That’s a bit of a challenge, he admits, since those are few and far between, but it’s worth the work, as he believes engaging children with autism in games could help them better focus.

It’s too soon to say whether the exposure to virtual environments truly makes the transition to real world ones easier, notes Guerreiro. After all, it’s one thing to see snow in a VR environment and another to feel the cold and wetness in reality. However, he says, “It’s one more tool we can use to expose them to things they find challenging.”