AcclimateVR Is Helping Learners on the Autism Spectrum Practice Everyday Living Skills

Learning to shop, use public transit, or cross a busy street are abilities that most people take for granted. But for children and adolescents on the autism spectrum, developing independence and building the skills that go along with it can be can be hugely challenging.

For many on the spectrum, it’s not so easy to pick things up on the fly just by observing others. The nuances of navigating unfamiliar places and interacting with strangers are not intuitive and self-explanatory.

Additionally, many students with autism have challenges with sensory processing. For a child who is oversensitive to stimulation (e.g., bright lighting, noise, or crowds), an ordinary trip to the supermarket or neighborhood restaurant can be anxiety-inducing.

Many students with developmental disorders like autism can gain these skills and adjust to new environments, however. They just need time to practice, to learn step-by-step and try repeatedly with the help of someone they trust, until they become comfortable. The learning process often requires many supports, much repetition, and various types of visual cues and prompting.

Real world practice is ideal, but it can be impractical and overwhelming.

Going out to real places in the community exposes students to the sights, sounds, and surprises they must learn to cope with. Therapists and teachers would love to do this (Community-Based Instruction) every day, but they know well the obstacles to making that happen.

Time is a big one. When kids are in school and have therapy sessions of less than an hour, going out may be impossible – they would spend more time in transit than in productive practice.

Even if there is a suitable place close enough to make it worthwhile, logistics hamper the effort. Teachers need to organize supervision, transportation, community partnerships, permission forms, medical papers, and reimbursement before they can take their students anywhere.

Safety is a major concern as well. It’s tough to predict how a child with autism will react to a new situation, and it can be hard to strike a balance between allowing independent practice and providing adequate supervision.

Virtual reality (VR) creates a way to practice in a safe, convenient environment.

VR makes a life-like experience of other places accessible anytime, anywhere. It’s a perfect complement to real-world learning. Students can practice far more often and with less stress, gradually building towards readiness to go out in the world and try their new skills.

Acclimate is changing the game of VR learning by listening to the autism community.

When we talked to therapists, special educators, and parents, what they wanted was clear.

Over and over again, we heard how important it is for virtual experiences used during therapy to mimic as closely as possible what students would see and hear in real world settings. While computer-generated simulations allow for a wide range of user interactions, they don’t always capture the visual intensity, ambient noise, and chaos of the real world, and that’s exactly what students with autism struggle with so much.

We’ve also learned that expensive devices are impractical in most school settings. Few schools can spare thousands of dollars for high-tech immersion set-ups with multiple monitors, projectors, tethered headsets, and hand controls.

Students need a rich library of content, too. There are so many situations they must learn to handle – shops, restaurants, travel, school, work, home, emergencies, and the list goes on.

We haven’t found a solution quite like this out we decided to make it ourselves!

We want the experience to be as close as possible to the real thing – that’s why we’re using 360° video.

Our immersive videos capture real people and places, with all their colors, noises, and imperfections. The 360° technology lets users see the whole scene – they can turn and experience what’s going on all around, not just what’s in front of them. They can even interact with the video, using their eyes and one simple button to choose how to respond to the situation.

We’re using a well-known therapy technique called point-of-view video modeling. That’s just a fancy way of saying that the student learns a skill by watching a video from the perspective of someone who’s doing it. Research shows that this technique works well for teaching social and communication skills to learners with autism, so we’re confident that our tools are built on a solid foundation.

Think of our VR experiences as immersive, interactive video modeling. Learners can actively participate in the video scene and feel like they are there, as opposed to passively watching a video.

We want our technology to be as accessible as possible – that’s why we’re creating it for the devices everyone already has in their pockets.

VR technology is now cheaper than ever. Once, you needed a special tethered headset or a dedicated room full of projectors. Few people other than tech junkies and researchers used it.

Now, all you need is your mobile phone and a $12 viewer.

We’re making our mobile app compatible with the Google Cardboard VR viewer so that anyone can use it, no expensive headsets or projectors necessary.

We want our learning tools to be for special education professionals, by special education professionals.

No one knows better what learners with autism need than the dedicated therapists, teachers, and parents who work with them every day. We wouldn’t dream of doing this without them.

We are following a user-centered design approach as we iteratively design and pilot our initial prototypes. All of our VR experiences are designed in collaboration with a multidisciplinary team of occupational and behavioral therapists, special educators, social workers, parents, researchers, and students with ASD. As a result of this participatory design approach, our learning experiences are based on well proven educational practices, curriculum, and therapeutic protocols that are frequently implemented in specialized schools and therapy programs.

We are currently partnering with Wildwood Programs, an organization that supports people with neurologically-based learning disabilities, autism, and other developmental disorders throughout their lives, and we couldn’t ask for a better ally. They are involved in every step of the process to make sure we’re creating learning tools that really work.

We want to be a resource for you!

On this blog, we’ll be sharing what we learn from our research and pilot tests, as well as helpful information for special educators, therapists, caregivers, and other members of the autism community.

As we evolve this teaching tool we would love to hear your feedback. Reach out through our contact page and let us know what you think about what we’re doing and most importantly, how we can build experiences that meet your learners' needs.

As our name suggests, AcclimateVR is here to help students with learning differences become comfortable in their environments, so they can learn everyday living skills in a safe space. 

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