Students with autism can use VR headsets to practice social behaviors in realistic scenarios before applying them in reality.

Mar 26 2020

VR Gives Students New Ways to Learn

Virtual reality offers students with autism safe spaces to practice social skills, prepare for new physical environments and master academic content.

Teachers are putting their students at the center of their lessons, giving them close-up looks at faraway planets and long-ago battles — all with virtual reality.

It’s a trend Kristen Powell, an assistive technology trainer and consultant with the education agency Chester County Intermediate Unit (CCIU) in Pennsylvania, noticed a couple of years ago at schools served by the regional education agency. Teachers used VR headsets and software to make lessons more engaging and realistic in subjects such as science and history.

She began to wonder whether VR might work in special education. “We’re always looking for what’s new out there to help our students move forward,” Powell says.

What she discovered, and what more and more educators across the country are beginning to realize, is that VR is a useful tool for students with special needs, particularly those on the autism spectrum. Many students with autism need practice navigating real-life settings and scenarios that neurotypical students take for granted. VR headsets and software can provide lifelike simulations that allow students to repeat behaviors multiple times before applying their learning in the real world.

Creating Safe Spaces to Explore Real-World Scenarios

CCIU uses ReTrak Utopia 360° VR headsets, along with mobile tablets and phones, to put students at the center of real-life scenarios presented by software maker Floreo. In one module, students learn to use and respond to simple social gestures such as waving hello and raising their hands. In others, they learn to respond to different social situations in a school hallway, cross the street safely at a crosswalk, respond to small talk and display expected behaviors while trick-

Three modules let students practice interactions with police officers, which are experiences that can prove difficult for students who have trouble responding appropriately to questions in an environment with significant auditory and visual distractions.

Assistive Technology Trainer and Consultant, Chester County Intermediate Unit (CCIU)

Kristen Powell, assistive technology trainer and consultant with Chester County Intermediate Unit, uses VR to help students with special needs.

Powell trains teachers on how to lead students through the programs using tablet computers and often lets teachers borrow the gear for several weeks to work with small groups of students. Some schools served by the agency are considering buying their own VR gear to have regular access to the tools.

It’s difficult to teach implicit social cues and how to read nonverbal cues, Powell says. “There’s only so far you can go with direct instruction. I can show students a picture, but it’s not real life. To me, virtual reality is this great bridge between direct instruction and real-life situations.”

Typical classroom role-playing exercises can sometimes feel “contrived,” says Greg Miller, director of technology support and systems engineering for CCIU, who has experience teaching students with autism. Virtual reality provides students with a digital experience instead of a real-world one, he says, but the technology can often mirror real-life interactions more accurately than even face-to-face exercises can.

“When you go out into the community, those environmental cues and situational variables don’t always translate well to direct, one-on-one role playing or instruction,” Miller says. “With VR, you can model the environment based on the real world. You start to get away from relying on the instructor and build that pathway to a place where students can stand on their own.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Discover how immersive technology champions the four C's of learning.

Tempering the Anxiety of Visiting New Places

Students with autism or other special needs often experience anxiety at the prospect of visiting new physical settings — especially those that present new sensory experiences. Recognizing this challenge, educators at Danvers Public Schools in Massachusetts developed a series of virtual reality tours to help students familiarize themselves with new spaces before actually visiting them in person.

“Our school psychologists were reporting to us about students who had anxiety issues when it came to these changes,” says Jeffrey Liberman, the district’s director of educational technology. “This was one way we thought we could help those students practice in advance with some of the places they were going.”

Before the 2019-2020 school year, the district used a 360-degree camera to film a tour of the high school, and middle school students used VR headsets from ASUS to explore the hallways before visiting the new building for the first time. Since then, the district has created a virtual downtown walking tour that students with special needs take in a life skills class. The district is also creating a virtual tour of its middle school. Officials have turned the 360-degree camera over to the high school’s video production department, which will work directly with the district’s student services department to create future VR videos.


The percentage of IT professionals who say virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality technologies will be as pervasive as mobile devices by 2025

Source: “2019 Augmented and Virtual Reality Survey Report,” XR Association, March 2019

It’s an idea that’s catching on. CCIU also recently purchased a 360-degree camera to produce its own virtual tours.

“A student who might otherwise skip a field trip to a theme park due to anxiety can use this to prepare,” Miller says. “The fact that this technology is available to us is just phenomenal in terms of what we can start doing for our students.”

In Danvers, the middle and high schools each have a VR cart that holds 30 VR headsets. The district beefed up its wireless infrastructure several years ago to accommodate a one-to-one Chromebook deployment, and Liberman notes that traffic from the VR headsets is handled by the district’s Aerohive AP250 wireless access points.

In addition to the tours, Danvers ­students in life skills classes are using Floreo VR modules to practice social skills. “The students are really finding this helpful, and they’re very excited about it,” Liberman says.

Jeffrey Liberman, Director of Educational Technology, Danvers Public Schools
This was one way we thought we could help those students practice in advance with some of the places they were going.”

Jeffrey Liberman Director of Educational Technology, Danvers Public Schools

Fostering Growth and Honing Social Skills

The Academy of Whole Learning, a Minnesota private school for students with autism spectrum disorder or related learning differences, uses Lenovo Daydream VR headsets, along with Google Expeditions, to virtually take students around the world. Google Expeditions allows students to explore sites ranging from the Great Barrier Reef and the North Pole to the Tower Bridge and Beijing’s Forbidden City.

“There are a million Google Expeditions,” says Georgette Benton, the school’s technology director. “Teachers have used the technology to take students on tours of college campuses and downtown New York City.”

Although neurotypical students across the country also use these VR programs, they’re especially helpful for students with special needs, who can benefit from immersive VR experiences that block out other distractions. “The students’ level of engagement and buy-in is automatic with VR,” says Kade Drechsler, a middle school teacher at the school. “They are 100 percent into it because it feels like they’re really there. It makes a big impact in how they approach the task and their enjoyment level.”

The school even has a virtual reality club, with students regularly visiting a local VR lab. Drechsler notes that students’ excitement about the outings spills over into social settings, giving them a chance to practice skills that many of them struggle with. “In a way, we’re tricking them into communicating with each other,” Drechsler says. “They don’t realize they’re using those social skills when they’re talking about virtual reality. That’s really great growth, and it’s great to see how they build friendships through these virtual experiences.”

The Other Side of the Goggles

Artists, developers and advocates are working on virtual reality experiences that put neurotypical people on the “other side of the goggles,” helping them better understand how people with autism perceive the world.

In 2018, a Birmingham, England, art installation called “Beholder” featured an immersive VR experience that aims to offer a perception of the world through the eyes of one artist’s nonverbal teenage son. The VR experience is set in a nature scene and transforms participants’ perception of time and space. It attempts to "reimagine a space where experience is fluid and neurodiversity is re-evaluated,” the Birmingham Open Media gallery states on its website.

Photography by Colin Lenton

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