5 steps for teaching students with autism through VR

Why this school year is a good time to start using virtual reality to help educate students on the autism spectrum, and how to get started

What if your staff could instruct a student with autism on how to social distance in a crowd without needing other students physically in the room?

This is one promise of virtual reality.

Now that VR headsets have become more affordable, the idea of using them may not be so out of reach for school districts on tight budgets. And, in light of the pandemic, the need to build student skills at a distance has risen, so bringing students into a virtual world may be a good solution.

Rewire.Education, started in 2018 by Moscow-based Luden.io, consists of several applied behavior analysis-aligned VR and non-VR games and programs that allow students to practice establishing eye contact; identifying the difference between inside, outside and other prepositions; using teamwork; and building and generalizing other skills. Rewire apps, such as ABA VR, are free during the pandemic and are being used primarily by behavior analysts in the U.S. They are available for Android and Apple devices.

“New formats of content, like short videos, photos, or 3D models in virtual reality, are super helpful for [generalizing] skills,” says Oleg Chumakov, the company’s CEO. “Those formats, and video games [themselves], always help motivation.”

Indeed, Adam Soffrin, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and educational consultant based in San Francisco, found several benefits when he and some of the students with disabilities he works with tried out the programming. He can see how VR may be helpful in bringing students back to school buildings.

“There are going to be lot of kids with transition issues going back to whatever the new normal is,” he says. “So many kids could use this to practice getting back into the classroom.”

At the same time, recognize that not every approach works for every student, Soffrin said. “I see it as being another tool in the toolbox,” he adds.

Here are five steps for trying VR programming with a student with autism.

  1. Address the student’s tolerance of a VR headset. Ensure the student can put on and keep on the headset, Soffrin says. While most students likely know about VR and will be excited to wear the headset, some students with sensory issues may need a more deliberate introduction to it. “There may have to be some tolerance training,” he adds. The student may need to hold it and look into it at first without putting it on, then put it on for a few seconds, then wear it for longer and longer intervals.
  2. Look for built-in reinforcement. While VR activities may be naturally motivating for most students, you may also want to look for programs that embed reinforcers you know the student will work for, such as a gold star or thumbs up in Rewire’s ABA VR, for every correct answer, Soffrin says.
  3. Control distractions. Having the student participate in a VR lesson already cuts down on the noise and visual stimulus outside the headset that may typically distract the student from learning, Soffrin says. But you can also control the level of distraction the student experiences within VR so he can practice.
  4. Promote interactions. While a student may build social-communication skills while participating on his own in a VR lesson, there is potential to do even more by having two or more students wear headsets and practice social skills together through a program. “I have some students who have trouble just tolerating sitting in a classroom with other students, so the idea that they could actually practice that virtually would be useful,” Soffrin says. “They might be able to tolerate it in virtual reality when they might not be able to tolerate it in real life. And if the student becomes overwhelmed, he can take the headset off instead of having to be removed from a classroom.”
  5. Emphasize training. Ensure whichever teachers and specialists you think may be able to bolster student progress using VR have adequate training so they can make the most of the technology. They can collaborate on customized materials, so no one duplicates efforts. “I remember I was a young special education teacher when smart boards were first getting implemented,” he said. “I was so eager to use them … but I noticed other teachers were just using them as big TV screens and never got the intricacies of them. Schools need to make sure teachers and therapists who use this are passionate enough to want to learn the ins and outs of the technology,” he says. “In the right hands of a creative person, I think you could do amazing things with this.”

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.

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