How VR helps students with autism practice social interaction

How VR helps students with autism practice social interaction

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Virtual reality may finally be having a moment, at least for one community.

A group of students from Kent Career Technical Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has created a VR experience that aims to help students with autism practice social interaction. 

It’s far from a finished product, but was polished enough to make it to the final round of Samsung’s nationwide Solve for Tomorrow invention competition last month. 

The app places students in various social situations in VR — the hallway, the classroom, interactions with friends, teachers, and students. Students are given options for how to respond to various situations, and can “practice” the interactions in VR. The kids developed the scripts and scenarios in consultation with autistic students and behavioral psychologists.

For example, you can practice meeting new students in the hallway, study in the library, and respond to teacher questions in a classroom. In one classroom scenario, a student next to me was having computer troubles, and I was tasked with deciding whether to try to help her fix it myself or alert the teacher. 

Marc Pletz II, a teacher at KCTC, told me that the students may, in the future, add scenarios outside of school. For example, they may add a TSA security checkpoint, where students practice not only interacting with TSA officials, but taking off their shoes and jackets and emptying their pockets.

The intention is that students can practice these scenarios, and different ways they may unfold, so they’re more prepared when the real thing comes up. The app may also include a 2D storyboard version of each scenario — something to refer to during social interactions. 

Image: kent career technical center

Social stories, “choose-your-own-adventure” activities in which students with autism are asked to practice social situations, are nothing new. 

An college student, who is autistic and thus spoke anonymously fearing social repercussions, told me that he grew up practicing social stories with teachers and in textbooks. “But I always had serious trouble paying attention to that stuff, and a lot of autistic kids do,” he told me. 

“A VR app, where it’s really immersive with fewer distractions, would have been great for someone like me.” 

Image: kent career technical center

That’s essentially what the students are going for: to turn what could be a boring classroom experience into one more fun, engaging, and kinesthetic. 

“You feel like you’re actually there,” said J’lon Johnson, one of the student developers. “It’s the difference between someone seeing someone else do something and learning it that way, and having you be the one that it happens to and doing it yourself.” 

A script, developed by a behavioral expert, that KCTC students are converting into a VR experience.

A script, developed by a behavioral expert, that KCTC students are converting into a VR experience.

It’s no secret that VR is a struggling medium. But even if the tech isn’t catching on in entertainment or gaming doesn’t mean it’s useless. In a classroom, the technology can do what textbooks can’t — deliver actual experience. 

These students don’t have a “full” app yet. The animation isn’t yet market-quality, and the options for scenarios are (for the moment) limited.

But it’s easy to see how the tech can make a difference to an often overlooked community, and that’s what’s important here. It’s exciting to see ways in which virtual reality could make a difference in students’ lives. And it’s even more exciting to see the next generation playing the part of creator. 

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