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Research School Network: Virtual Reality Technology used by Autistic Groups In this blog, Iian Conley reports on an innovative project to test the use of virtual reality devices with children with SEND…

Virtual Reality Technology used by Autistic Groups

In this blog, Iian Conley reports on an innovative project to test the use of virtual reality devices with children with SEND…

by West Somerset Research School
on the

Virtual Reality Technology used by Autistic groups, is a research project with joint collaborators, The Mendip School (TMS) in Somerset and The University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol. The project was aimed at primarily exploring the potential of virtual reality technology, to support the development of social skills for young people with autism. A pilot feasibility study examining the views of children (ages 6 to 16) was implemented, and achieved through working with TMS and their pupils in asking their views of three types of virtual reality head-mounted displays (HMD). We worked with a range of pupils and collected data that addressed three key areas:

Key research questions:

Which device was most/​least preferred?
Are there any sensory or negative effects associated with the hardware (VR HMD)?
Would the pupils like to use the HMDs in their learning/​classrooms?
Autistic children reported HTC Vive as their preferred device for engaging with VR.
Autistic children identified VR being most useful for relaxing and calming contexts.
No reported negative effects by autistic children and none observed.
High levels of enjoyment and comfort using HMDs were reported.


We found that the higher-end (that is most expensive and highest quality) HMD was most preferred. The very low-tech option (Google Cardboard) was the 2nd most preferred. This was coupled with very limited (if any) reported negative effects, while enjoyment using the HMD and willingness/​desire to use it again were reported as very high. In addition, pupils reported they would like to use the equipment again. Areas that came up most, for application of VR, was for relaxing/​meditation, learning about places they’ve not visited before, and to help alleviate fears of going somewhere unusual. In short, the highlights/​key findings were:


Based on the feedback from both pupils and teachers, low-tech options such as cardboard HMDs coupled with a smartphone, could be an appropriate first-step into using VR to transport pupils to various environments to augment their learning. Feedback suggested that that VR HMDs might be most usefully received to provide access to forms of meditation. Thought could therefore also be give to using VR in schools to provide access to quick and easy methods that may help reduce stress and increase calming feelings for autistic children.

Virtual reality HMDs need careful thought too. We found that while teachers were excited and happy to see VR used with their pupils, there was limited ownership of the technology, rather they preferred for the researchers to operate and deploy the technology. In order to enable teachers to take ownership of the technology, there would be a need for training provision and support elements.

We worked with a small local company, GoVirtually, to develop an accessible” tour of We the Curious in Bristol (see more here: This was a VR tour of the museum that TMS pupils could use before they visited in person. This works in the same way a Social Story” is created and used for a child with ASD. The data suggested that this helped reduce anxiety and worries about visiting the physical space for the first time.

Overall, a successful project that brings about several implications for practice and findings that will help to move the field of autism, technology and learning forward.

Further reading:

Some links to the work and publications are here:

Publication – Using Virtual Reality Head-Mounted Displays in Schools with Autistic Children: Views, Experiences, and Future Directions
A how to guide we developed for the NAS:


Dr Nigel Newbutt (nigel.​newbutt@​uwe.​ac.​uk) Senior Lecturer and Senior Researcher in Digital Education, UWE.
Iian Conley (iconley@​themendipschool.​com) – Assistant Principal (Outreach) The Bath and Mendip Partnership Trust

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