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Virtual reality application offers children with autism spectrum disorder a way to practice social skills

Thursday, February 25, 2021

LAWRENCE — For individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), social interactions can be awkward or difficult to navigate. Whether it’s a conversation in the hallway at school or buying a candy bar at a grocery store, direct instruction and practice of social skills may be required to support success. Practicing these interactions as often as possible is key to long-term development and improvement, but it can be difficult to repeat or practice in-person as much as is needed to feel confident.

The solution may be found in virtual reality applications being developed by researchers at the University of Kansas.

The VOISS, or Virtual Reality Opportunities to Integrate Social Skills, walks users through a variety of potential social interactions. It can be presented in a two-dimensional way on a tablet or laptop, or it can be used with a virtual reality headset.

“Repeated exposure to improving social skills is key for effective long-term development,” said Sean Smith, the principal investigator of the project and a professor of special education at KU. “However, face-to-face interactions may not always offer the forgiveness or repetition that is required for someone to learn from it.”

In development for more than 10 years, VOISS is part of a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Smith is leading the project with co-investigator Amber Rowland, assistant research professor in KU’s Center for Research on Learning, which is a part of the Life Span Institute, and with Bruce Frey, professor of research psychology.

Now, teachers and students at 17 schools are testing VOISS, even as schools have turned to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. To support educators and build their capacity in social skill instruction, the team recently launched the VOISS Advisor, an implementation website. It includes video demonstrations of the app and lesson plans that help students take what they learned and practiced in virtual reality. Students can then practice and use those skills in a physical space.

“VOISS Advisor provides the tools that an educator needs in order to feel confident teaching social skills,” Rowland said.

School districts that are interested in participating or want to learn more can reach out to Rowland or Smith or complete the VOISS interest form.

Rowland said that whether it’s the small talk in the hallway or with a cashier at the supermarket, VOISS users can practice what to say and do in each situation. They can play the role of themselves or look at the interaction from the perspective of other people in the scene. Over 140 scenarios are being developed for users to practice these basic interactions. The app is available through Google Play.

In addition to practice with the experiences, the goal is to help students generalize the interaction from on-screen to their reality, or from the classroom setting to a grocery store, for example. Ultimately, Smith said, the researchers are determining if the availability of safe and repeated interactions in an online environment increases that ability to generalize the interaction.

After each guided scenario, there are questions that serve as an assessment of how the situation was handled. From there, all of this data is added to a dashboard for an educator or other professional to review.

The drive for the project stems from Smith and Rowland’s passion for innovation, specifically within education and technology.

“Technology can make a big difference for students with disabilities, but oftentimes it's not being used or implemented effectively,” Smith said.

Rowland added, “Researchers and developers are currently using virtual reality to practice social skills, and yet, we are the only team looking at how to support educators and students as they generalize from the virtual environment, into the physical space.”

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