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Virtual Reality and Special Needs: Virtually Endless Possibilities

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Technology marches on... We live in a world where technology impacts nearly every aspect of our daily life, and that statement is very apparent among the population of people with special needs. From video modeling and internet-based curriculum to data collection and reinforcement, the individuals we serve are exposed to technology more so than ever.

Considering that Facebook purchased a leading virtual reality company (Oculus Rift) earlier this year for $2B, emerging technology such as virtual reality is sure to impact many lives in the near future, especially the population of people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Virtually Real Life Situations

virtual-reality-special-needsVirtual Reality is a technology that utilizes a computer generated, simulated environment in which the user is able to navigate and interact with whatever has been programmed into that particular environment (Mitchell, Parsons, and Leonard, 2006). These simulated environments might include a classroom, playground, or park to enhance play or social skills, an office or training center for practicing job interviews, or a restaurant or movie theater to hone the nuances dating. In many cases, the real world doesn't allow for second chances, however, with virtual reality, repeated exposure to these types of situations is possible. Further, novel environments which may evoke problem behaviors such as a mall, church, or football stadium could be explored prior to a real life visit, or potentially frightening situations such as a dentists office, travelling alone on public transit, or even going to bed at night can all be desensitized in a virtual environment. The ability to control variables and outcomes will only become easier within the virtual environment. Want to teach your child proper social skills at the grocery store? Practice in the virtual environment before ever stepping foot in Kroger. Does your adolescent clam up when talking to peers? Conversation skills can be enhanced in virtual reality and then generalized to real life. Are roller coasters the ultimate reward for your kid? Ride one for a few minutes, virtually, between therapy sessions. The possibilities are, ahem, virtually endless!

Advantages of Virtual Reality

Some advantages of virtual reality are that learning can be started or stopped instantly, be repeated with identical or varied outcomes, and occur with much less strain on parents, caregivers, or therapists due to time, cost, and travel. Data can be taken to precisely determine how long an individual takes to navigate a contrived situation, where hesitations occur, where and for how long non-target variables maintain the attention of the individual, among many other variables.

Exploring Environments

Virtual environments can be displayed on a computer screen where the user controls an avatar, or representation of himself or herself, either from a birds-eye view (from above) or a through-the-eyes view where the individual never sees the avatar. A joystick often controls the avatar and selection of virtual objects is done with a mouse. This type of virtual reality tends to be less expensive and reduces the possibility of "cybersickness" (Parsons, Mitchell, and Leonard, 2004). Another, more familiar type of interface involves the use of a head-mounted device that provides for a full-immersion experience. While the possibility of cybersickness (temporary vertigo, nausea, etc.) is increased, the experience of being "inside" the virtual environment has the advantage of simulating movement that cannot be replicated on a desktop system. In particular, the Oculus Rift system incorporates a 3D stereoscopic view and positional tracking which allows the user to move fluidly within the virtual environment by mimicking movements in the real world. While this may sound like a bit much for you child, you might be surprised. One special education teacher in Australia has reported on his website,, that many of his students have taken to virtual reality with very little difficulty.

Virtual Applications

There are a number of articles published on various applications for use with people with disabilities, autism spectrum disorder in particular; a variety of which can be found at I am very excited about the possibility of virtual reality enhancing the lives of the population we serve at The Shape, and I hope to update you in the future that we are leading the industry by offering virtual reality as yet another means of utilizing ABA for the betterment of the community.


Mitchell, Parsons, and Leonard. Using virtual environments for teaching social understanding to 6 adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2007, 37:589-600. doi: 10.1007/s10803-006-0189-8.

Parsons, Mitchel, and Leonard. The use and understanding of virtual environments by adolescents with autistic spectrum disorders. The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34:4.

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Guest Saturday, 19 October 2019