For people on the autism spectrum, technology can be an especially appealing way to learn.
“Ever since the first computers came out and people with autism were very drawn to them, people have been trying to figure out what it is about technology that’s so motivating for people with autism spectrum disorder,” said Julia Parish-Morris, another leader of the CAR study and a research assistant professor of psychology with Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. “Maybe it’s that technology is more predictable. It’s a more controlled way to learn. Other people have said it’s about novelty — trying new stuff.”
Still others have suggested that technology, as a means of learning and communication, acts as a bridge for people on the autism spectrum — an engaging, comfortable link between the autistic brain and the neurotypical world.
Research has found that technology-based learning can be appealing to people with ASD for several reasons. It’s consistent. It can provide a specific focus of attention that reduces distractions from extraneous sensory stimuli, as well as freedom from social demands.
And as Skylar, a video game aficionado, found, virtual reality can be a lot of fun.
A virtual bridge to real communication
Manoj Ravindran thinks so, too. A few years ago, Manoj, then a 6-year-old with ASD from the Washington area, was so intrigued by Google Maps and navigation that his father, Vijay Ravindran, a software engineer and former Amazon engineering director, introduced him to virtual reality.
“He really enjoyed that, and he started engaging in pretend play, which was a big developmental milestone that is often delayed with kids with autism,” said Ravindran, a member of the board of managers of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns The Inquirer.
That led Ravindran and Manoj’s mother, Vibha Sazawal, a computer scientist, to develop Floreo. Manoj, now 9 and an enthusiastic partner in Floreo, helps introduce other children to VR at exhibitions. The Floreo system has been put to use as a learning tool in schools, autism programs, and homes.
Concern about the safety of her son and young people like him helped convince Skylar’s mother, Sheila Armstrong, to have her son take part in the study.
“I have an African American male teenager,” said Sheila Armstrong, a city probate clerk and education advocate. “It’s scary because my son is special needs, and I didn’t know if he knew how to react if he was stopped and frisked. If you look at my son, he looks like a million other African American boys.”
Armstrong said her hope is that the study can be a learning experience for people with autism as well as for police.
“I look at this as one of many tools that can be used to bridge communication and understanding for both groups,” she said.
Even though police training is not a goal of the study, Capt. Michael O’Donnell, commanding officer of Philadelphia’s 17th Police District, saw its potential for both police and people on the spectrum, and got his officers involved.
“It’s giving them good training and cues to look for when they’re dealing with people with autism,” O’Donnell said. “Instead of escalating a situation, they can recognize those cues and actually de-escalate a situation more quickly.”
In the study, participants on the spectrum are randomly assigned to one of two groups. The VR group gets three Philly-centric lessons with the Floreo device. The other group also gets three lessons, but with more conventional materials, such as a video, verbal instruction, and worksheets. Each then gets to practice what they’ve learned with a real police officer.
This summer, the study is being conducted at CHOP, but the plan is to expand it to such community settings as schools. The researchers are still looking for participants, age 12 to 60, and partner institutions for both legs of the study.
“Our hypothesis is not that VR will be better for everybody,” Parish-Morris said, “but that these different programs will help different people.”
If so, this study may be able to show that virtual reality can also be a promising tool for people on the spectrum to learn other skills.
Skylar, who is in his Kensington high school’s culinary program, said he’d like to try virtual reality cooking lessons.
His mother wonders whether virtual reality might be a safe way to start learning the basics of another skill Skylar is eager to acquire: driving a car.
For now, though, Skylar seems to have gotten a kick out of his law enforcement learning experience. Even before the study, he was a fan of such cop shows as Blue Bloods and Criminal Minds, and he has chatted with the officer at his high school.
“He knows a lot about police officers,” said Linda Nagle, one of the officers helping with the study. “I was impressed.”
And young people such as Skylar may have their own lessons to share.
“That’s why I told him, ‘Son, it’s important for you to do that study,’” Sheila Armstrong said. “'You see the world differently, and we need that.'”
Individuals and families interested in participating in the study can contact Lucero Cordero at CORDEROLE@email.chop.edu or 267-425-1152.
For more info see floreotech.com