Nuno Guerreiro looks at how Virtual Reality headsets in the classroom can lead to greater, more varied life opportunities.

The unknown causes anxiety for anyone, but for young people with autism and SEN, this anxiety is heightened and with it can come severe upset and distress.

How can you reduce unknowns around even everyday experiences like riding on a bus or being in an airport, which significantly impact the quality of life of people with complex autism and their families?

Technology within the classroom has a huge role to play, with Virtual Reality being one form of technology.

Within a wider approach
Virtual Reality fits into the Prior’s Court approach for supporting those with complex autism of allying clearly-defined structure (via tools such as schedules and work activity systems) with methods of communication (from verbal instructions to use of symbols, through to the physical layout of a room) that are individualised to young people based on their preferences and strengths. Other techniques used include social stories which can help to outline what experiences one might encounter in certain scenarios or what tasks one might have to perform.

But how can you create, say, what a journey on a bus might feel like while retaining the comfort of an environment that young people feel safe and secure in?

This is where Virtual Reality comes in. 

Into action
Used as a complementary education and therapy device, Virtual Reality headsets are first introduced within the Lower School (students under the age of 16). The sensation and anxiety around wearing a headset itself first needs to be overcome with small amounts of usage time, before experience-led activities can be introduced.

Use of the headsets in lower age ranges is about relaxation via stimulating sensory experiences. This provides the groundwork for comfort with the headsets and so is the gateway to encountering scenarios that are directly transferable to “real world” situations. 

The real-world scenarios can be put into two categories:

  • To provide our students with experiences they may not be able to otherwise access, such as skiing, deep-sea diving, or being in a hot air balloon.
  • To prepare students for encountering scenarios they struggle with in the outside world which therefore limits their life opportunities. This includes use of public transport, accessing the world of work, and phobias such as undergoing medical treatments. These latter two aspects are particularly important given underemployment for those with SEN and the consequences being unable to receive medical support causes. 

Virtual Reality is used to provide experiences of being in crowded medical settings, or, using a 360-degree camera, making use of footage the actual workplaces young people may go to for work experience or placements. As such, young people can see precisely what they are going to see and experience, thus curtailing anxieties. On a careers angle, this makes the process of our young people transferring the skills they have learnt on-site to their work placement smoother. And from a medical perspective, it heightens the chances of a visit to a medical setting being successful.

During Covid-19 lockdowns, Virtual Reality was also used as a substitute for experiences young people at Prior’s Court were missing out on, such as horse-riding or going on a roller coaster at a theme park, alleviating frustration caused by these activities being unavailable to conventionally access.

Elsewhere, using virtual reality with two students to explore a real-life city supports learning around communication, road safety, geography and more.

Success story
The use of Virtual Reality has given the family of one of our young people an experience they had not been able to have for nine years – going on an overseas holiday.

For up to 20 minutes at a time over the course of three weeks, one of our young people, Bryony (the student’s name has been changed), used VR with Nuno and other members of staff. Bryony experienced walking inside an airport, the noises and activities within an airport, and the sensations of being inside a plane. Simultaneously, staff members could wear a headset to see what Bryony was seeing, and so explain and reassure her.

VR gave Bryony the closest possible experience of being in an airport and on a plane without actually being there, breaking down a huge amount of the unknown which would cause her anxiety and extreme stress. 

The VR headset usage was alongside airport and air travel-themed learning in class and in Bryony’s residential home on-site, with learning techniques such as matching activities and a schedule of tasks Bryony would need to complete at the airport.

Without this intensive work, in all likelihood Bryony’s parents would not even be able to attempt to fly with their daughter due to stresses caused on all parties.

Bryony’s mum reported: “It was so nice to have a family holiday abroad together. Thank you so much to the Prior’s Court staff for your support to make our holiday abroad possible.”

Looking forward
Prior’s Court has recently completed the creation of a dedicated Virtual Reality room (sessions were previously held within an IT suite) as a sign of the commitment to continuing to expand the range of the VR programme. This allows for one-to-one work and more intervention-led approaches.

Work is underway university researchers to explore if Virtual Reality is a more effective tool than visual instruction for developing and maintaining skills, particularly around vocational learning in Prior’s Court’s on-site bakery, Bread & Beyond. Other projects include dog phobia therapy, supporting self-regulation approaches, and further one-to-one interventions, such as the project with Bryony.

Technology in the classroom
Reflecting the pioneering IT career of its Founding Patron Dame Stephanie Shirley, Prior’s Court aspires to embed technology across its provision.

This includes:

  • the use of gathering and analysing big data on its Prior Insight platform to better understand autism as a condition; 
  • use of Microsoft tools to empower students to care for the environment, learn more about environmental issues, and share their progress; 
  • creating communications and marketing design and print documents for on-site events as part of a work experience programme;
  • exploring using drones to support learning in literacy, numeracy and geography.

This approach is coupled with promoting safer use of technology across the Prior‘s Court community

Nuno Guerreiro
Author: Nuno Guerreiro

Nuno Guerreiro
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Nuno Guerreiro is ICT Lead at Prior’s Court Foundation, which operates a residential special school and young adult provision for individuals with complex autism. Nuno is also a Microsoft Innovative Educator (MIE) Expert for 2021/22.


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