Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects one in 68 children (Centers for Disease Control and Prevalence, 2014). As the numbers of identified individuals with ASD rise, students with ASD continuously underperform on the requirement of graduating with a standard diploma. The national graduation rate for students with disabilities is 61% (Samuels, 2015), yet students with ASD graduate at a rate of 40% (or less) (Barrat et al., 2014). Social, economic, and employment outcomes for adults with ASD also remain poor (Parsons, 2016).

Individuals with ASD demonstrate persistent deficits in the areas of social interactions across a variety of contexts, which lead to deficits in forming and maintaining relationships (APA, 2015). Consequently, these deficits lead to an increased risk for loneliness and social isolation (Didehbani, Allen, Kandalaft, Krawczyk & Chapman, 2016). Special education teachers frequently struggle with developing and delivering effective instruction on social skills due to a strong academic focus within the schools and a lack of training or existing curriculum for social skills.

However, to improve graduation rates and, more importantly, social and employment outcomes for students with ASD, schools must find a way to address the need for effective social skills instruction. Using virtual reality (VR) can be one of the potential solutions to the current lack of an instructional match to the students’ social skills deficit (Parsons, 2016; Didehbani et al., 2016; Lorenzo, Lledo, Pomares, & Roig, 2016; Irish, 2013).

Among evidence-based practices for individuals with ASD are social skills training, video modeling, and technology-aided instruction and intervention (National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder, 2014). VR as an instructional option combines technology-aided instruction and intervention, social skills training, and video modeling. Depending on the VR design, additional evidence-based practices of prompting and reinforcement may also be simultaneously implemented with intentional design.

Didehbani et al. (2016) proposed that VR allows individuals to practice socially challenging interactions with less anxiety than more traditional social skills interventions. This is accomplished by providing opportunities for repeated practice in a constantly changing and dynamic environment within a safe context. Traditional instructional methods cannot create such intricate contexts. Within a VR setting individuals with ASD can make social mistakes without the fear of rejection or intense anxiety. Additionally, computer technology can frequently be highly motivating as well through immediate feedback and dense sensory input.

Complexity and variability of VR experiences impact the effectiveness of VR as an intervention (Parsons, 2016).  Most current VR environments display visual experiences on a desktop computer screen for single users (Lorenzo et al., 2016) while others allow students to collaborate with additional students in a virtual learning environment (Wang, Laffrey, Xing, Ma & Stichter, 2016; Parsons, 2015).

A recent application of VR provided an immersive virtual reality experience through the use of L-shaped screens, robots with eye-in-hand camera system, sound system, and software with an algorithm that identifies and quantifies the user’s basic expressions of anger, happiness, sadness and surprise (Lorenzo et al., 2016). Using VR to improve social skills may be a promising practice (Parsons, 2015; Didehbani et al., 2016; Irish, 2013), though most studies include small samples and lack longitudinal and follow-up studies (Irish, 2013). Questions remain if the participants can generalize those skills across other settings and real people. 

Costs and installation present practical barriers for the use of VR as an instructional strategy within a school system. Investing in a costly, not-yet deemed evidence-based practice is likely to present a challenge. Additionally, special education teachers may not possess a strong knowledge base in VR design or the ability to troubleshoot technical aspects.

Statista (2017) forecasted the total number of active virtual reality users to reach 171 million by 2018. As more VR is developed further studies should explore using VR as an intervention strategy for students with ASD. However, VR should not be an intervention in itself. Instead, VR should be one of the tools to enhance student engagement and success. VR designers and special education teachers need to engage in interdisciplinary collaboration in order to combine the exciting possibilities of a dynamic and safe VR world with effective teaching practices.

Daria Lorio-Barsten is a Ph.D. student in the EPPL K-12 Administration program at William & Mary. Her interests include special education, behavior management, and creativity. @DariaLorio


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