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Special educational needs students use virtual reality to help navigate real world

Students on the autistic spectrum are using virtual reality to help them prepare for real-world interaction

Students at a special educational needs (SEN) school in Cheltenham are using virtual reality (VR) technology to learn to interact with the real world as part of a pro-bono relationship with IT services company CGI.

Following the first project, which involved the use VR to help students on the autistic spectrum practice their interactions and communication in a local shop, Bettridge School plans to virtualise more real-world environments with CGI.

The school provides education to young people with special educational needs, including students on the autistic spectrum. Through a teacher’s link with a CGI employee, the school was able to meet the supplier and brainstorm ideas about what tech innovation could do for the school and its pupils.

“It was perfect serendipity because we were able to be linked with a company with all this innovation,” said Jo Bleasdale, headteacher at Bettridge School. “CGI was really interested in what ways innovation could help us as a school.”

The school identified its students’ struggles integrating with the real world as a major challenge. “The real world is a really scary place, particularly for those on the autistic spectrum,” she said.

Bleasdale said at the time of the initial discussions, the UK was in Covid-19 lockdown and the school was unable to take students out to the community to practice functional skills and life skills. This initiated a conversation with CGI about the virtual world.

“An embryonic idea grew to create environments that would be useful to map out that could be used during the lockdown and could have a role in the future,” said Bleasdale.

“For example, for some of our young people to go into a shop, a commonplace event for most people, is a huge deal for them. Virtual reality enables students to get used to places, like shops, in a safe environment where extraneous things can be removed.”

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In the past, the school would have taken photographs, and occasionally videos, of environments to show students before gradually introducing them to the real environments.

The environments are mapped out and an identical VR version is created. Bleasdale said it is essential that the environment is exactly the same as the real environment. It can’t just be any shop – it must be the same as the real-world shop they will visit. “For an autistic learner, you can’t just represent that because what you see is what you have to get, otherwise it doesn’t make sense,” she said.

CGI mapped out the local shop and the school plans for more real-world locations to be recreated. “This is the trailblazer project but will be adapted to other scenarios,” said Bleasdale.

The first talks with CGI were in late 2020 and the technology was first used in the summer of 2022.

Bleasdale added that the students took to the VR easily because they are used to this type of technology.

Patrick Hutchings, senior vice-president of consulting services for secure innovation and advisory at CGI, said: “Part of CGI’s culture is to build relationships with the communities in which we live and work. This pro-bono project was put forward by one of our employees who identified an application of our technology that could make a real difference to the school’s pupils. We hope to build on this very successful example with other schools and groups.”

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