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VR simulations help autistic people complete real-world tasks

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A researcher at the University of Missouri (MU) is using VR headsets to help autistic people navigate public transportation on college campuses.

MU researcher Noah Glaser partnered with a programme at the University of Cincinnati on a pair of studies geared toward providing autistic people virtual training opportunities to practice using a public bus to get around town.

Using AI, the research team found that autistic people often experience their environment differently than their neurotypical peers, and that their attention and gaze patterns are often diverted due to sensory processing challenges in overstimulating environments.

The findings pave the way for future research exploring how virtual reality simulations can help autistic individuals increase their self-confidence and community engagement by providing a safe space to practice various tasks.

Glaser, an assistant professor in the MU College of Education and Human Development, said: “There is an abundance of autism-related research in the medical industry, but we want to show how interventions beyond medicine can help autistic people feel more comfortable in society.”

One study explored how a group of young autistic adults navigated an on-campus bus system.

To gather data, researchers created a virtual reality simulation that’s an exact replica of a university’s campus and shuttle system.

They used an AI technique known as “computer vision” — or the ability for computers to detect objects and make informed decisions — to analyse how participants wearing the VR headset attended to physical objects along their virtual journey across campus to the bus stop.

The researchers then compared that data to neurotypical users to see what differences might exist.

Glaser said: “We know that neurodiverse individuals often have sensory processing challenges, and certain environments — like going to a bus stop on a busy college campus — can be overstimulating and anxiety-inducing.

“If we can identify which objects were most distracting to neurodiverse learners along their journey and what objects were being attended to the most, we can manipulate or reduce that extra stimuli in a safe, controlled environment before participants attempt that activity in the real world.”

Part of the VR simulation involved an instructor modelling the skills the participants would eventually perform in real life on a guided tour to the virtual bus stop.

Glaser said: “This project helps us better understand the nature of human-computer interaction from a group of users who typically are left out of those conversations.

“We need more research with neurodiverse individuals to better understand how they interact with virtual reality learning environments so we can adapt the interventions to become more accessible.”

The researcher said this research is just the tip of the iceberg into examining how AI and virtual reality simulators can help special education professionals, intervention specialists and instructional designers support neurodiverse individuals.

He added: “Going forward, we can use these tools to help provide training opportunities for neurodiverse learners who are interested in cybersecurity and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-related fields.

“These are industries that have historically been severely underrepresented in people with disabilities and neurodiverse individuals.”

Glaser said that he hopes his efforts can help translate the skills neurodiverse learners adapt virtually into the real world, which will improve both their own self-confidence and their contributions to society at-large.

The researcher added: “This work can spark more opportunities for promoting inclusive learning environments and better understanding of how neurodiverse individuals use and interact with technology.

“When learning interventions are being developed, it is important we include neurodiverse individuals as part of the design process.”

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