Autism Spectrum and Learning Through Virtual Reality: A Review

Parents with children on the autism spectrum occasionally reach out to VictoryXR for a solution for improved learning. We are not experts on autism, but we work hard to understand the issues that face parents and students in this situation and provide the best assistance we can. Recently, we received a note from one of those mothers:

A mother of a son on the autism spectrum sent us a note today:

“Hi, my son David has been using your software, VictoryXR, since September and it has been great! He enjoyed all the lessons and has learned a lot, for which we are grateful. VictoryXR is his education, as there is no other suitable school for him because of his autism.

David’s favourite lesson has been the programming game (where you give instructions to a robot to run, jump etc.) in the rad robot module. Today he was doing the “genius genetics “ lesson. His interests are in science and computing but he can’t function at all in a school or even a small group, and your software allows him to study at his own pace and really explore the subjects he’s interested in, His big hero is Elon Musk, and he hopes to become an astronaut some day.

So, thank you to you and your team!”

In light of this, we felt it would be helpful to review some of the literature and studies related to the use of autism and virtual reality.

Four Benefits to VR for Students on the Spectrum

Wyayn Rasmussen and Kate Dreschler, educators at the Whole Learning Academy which specializes in neurodiversity education, list four key benefits of virtual reality for students with autism.

“First, virtual reality can provide a safe, sensory-friendly environment that allows instruction to be tailored to the needs of students with autism. Second, a virtual environment can provide repeated practice for social scenarios, which is important because no two social interactions are ever exactly the same. Third, a virtual world allows students to apply skills, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, iteration, and communication, in a risk-free environment that allows unlimited attempts at a task. Finally, technology is often highly motivating and rewarding for individuals with ASD. Virtual reality offers an engaging, interactive, and individualized platform for training and improving academic and social concepts in students with ASD.”

Read the entire article here:

Studies Show that VR Can Be An Effective Tool for Students with Autism

A study published on the National Institute of Health Government site (United States) reviewed a set of studies to determine the effectiveness of virtual reality. Their conclusion was mostly positive:

“With regard to the effectiveness of the studies, 30 of the 31 studies stated that the application of the VR-based treatment resulted in the improvement of at least one of the objectives addressed. Only one study specified that the results were inconclusive. However, only 10 of the studies identified the improvement as being statistically significant.”

You can see the full review here:

VR Can Improve Social Communication

In a case study with one 13-year old fully verbal boy, virtual reality improved the social communication of a student.

“A 13-year-old fully-verbal adolescent male student with a diagnosis of ASD received a total of 16 smartglasses-aided intervention sessions over a 2-week period. Interventions occurred twice-daily during school days and were facilitated by school professionals in a middle school in Massachusetts, USA. The participant completed the 3-week study [one pre-intervention week (baseline) and two intervention weeks] without any observations of adverse effects or usability concerns. The parent and three educators completed the SRS-2 for the baseline and intervention weeks, and results demonstrated significant improvement in social communication after the intervention relative to baseline.”

You can read the full case study here: Case Study of a Digital Augmented Reality Intervention for Autism in School Classrooms: Associated With Improved Social Communication, Cognition, and Motivation via Educator and Parent Assessment

My View: The content we developed was built around the VARK theory of learning by a curriculum specialist and a classroom teacher. The theory includes Visual, Aural, Reading/writing and Kinesthetic. Because of this, students are given the opportunity to experience virtual field trips around the world, games in a virtual world, movies in a cinema, and lessons from Wendy the Science Teacher.

Some of the experiences are passive, while others are active. Most post no risk of nausea, but a few — like the racing game experience — is highly sensory and could cause nausea for those who are sensitive to motion sickness in VR. This is why each student should have the experiences customized and educators or parents are encouraged to preview the experiences before assigning them to a student.

Our frog dissection won the award for the world’s best virtual reality education experience. This is a great learning tool as it replaces frog dissection in the classroom.

Bottom Line: students and educators understand that every student is different based on many factors. While virtual reality may be a very good solution for one student, it may be upsetting or lack effectiveness for another. However, the early evidence indicates that virtual reality has significant potential for students on the autism spectrum.

Steve Grubbs is the founder of VictoryXR, a company that creates curriculum in augmented and virtual reality. Steve is a former state legislator and chairman of the House Education Committee. He has degrees in business and law from the University of Iowa.