I hadn’t really noticed the young man in the line-up waiting for his turn to demo our Virtual Reality Autism Demystification program until he spoke. “Do you need people who have sensory challenges to try it too?” he asked. Katie Robbins, Program Coordinator at Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society answered. “Yes, of course, we need that perspective most of all,” Katie replied. The young man smiled back at her reply.
By that time, we had been providing demos at the AASCEND Conference SFSU for 6 hours straight. We were exhausted. We were also rushing to pack up as another presenter required the room right away. I was busy myself providing demos so didn’t really notice as this young man began his turn with the demo. I did hear Katie do her usual spiel about how to use the Samsung HMD Odyssey Windows Mixed Reality headset. Supporting new users is a necessary step as VR is such a new technology to most.
This particular young man came to my full attention when I heard him say, “I just need to dry my eyes” as he quickly took off the headset. Katie suggested that perhaps he not continue with the demo, but his reply was, “No, I want to finish it. It is really cool” as he dried his eyes and then put the headset back on.
Following their demo, each user was asked to fill out a questionnaire to provide us with data, comments, and feedback on their experience in the VRADP. We collected over 48 surveys that day. While some users chose not to fill out questionnaires, this young man did and identified himself as on the autism spectrum. We knew from the rating that he felt the VRADP demo was excellent. He was also one of the few individuals on the spectrum who took the demo that day to write a comment, here is what he wrote:
“It was fun. It made me cry. It was completely accurate and made me vividly re-live kindergarten. I would play it all day.”
Needless to say, he was not the only person to cry that day over his reaction to our VRADP. Katie and I reached for the tissues as we reviewed his survey.
When we were starting Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society and designing the Autism Demystification model and programs 18 years ago, I could not have imagined how the delivery of these programs would grow and change over the years just like my children. And like my three children, the Virtual Reality Autism Demystification program has grown our little program into adulthood. Ready, able and capable of leaving the nest. Able to fly on its own to help educate a new generation to understand, accept and empathize, while promoting friendships between with individuals with autism and their peers worldwide.
18 months ago, I traveled to Seattle WA to visit Valve. Valve is a company that develops gaming software. I was fortunate enough to be invited to try out the Vive, at that time a new Virtual Reality system.
I am not a “gamer” and honestly know very little about gaming. Therefore, I would say I was moderately uncomfortable with the visit. However, my discomfort level left me quickly upon arriving at Valve and putting on the Vive. I was transported immediately into the deep sea where I was “swimming” with whales. I then made a meal, painted on a life size canvas and finally walked as a giant in San Francisco finding my dear friend Pamela’s house using Google Earth. It was a remarkable experience.
On the more than 3-hour trip back to Vancouver BC, I never stopped talking about how VR could change the face of intervention for children with autism. And how VR would be a natural extension of the Friend 2 Friend Autism Demystification® programs we have been delivering for more than 15 years.
The concept is simple: The Virtual Reality Autism Demystification programs addresses the social and communication needs of individuals with autism. Using our signature Autism Demystification® programs, we are now creating a multiplatform VR-based educational game that enables peers, educators, parents and coworkers to understand what it feels like to have autism. Like all Friend 2 Friend programs our VRADP will go beyond understanding by teaching prosocial communication strategies to enhance social interactions and friendships. VRADP combines technology, education and gaming to enable participants worldwide to use our unique VRADP to foster understanding, acceptance, empathy and social inclusion for individuals on the autism spectrum.
I am so thrilled to be preparing to launch our “proof of concept” (as they say in the developing world) or what I call a “demo” this spring. Our very first Virtual Reality Autism Demystification program.