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.
The game of life can be challenging for many individuals with autism.
School is one of the most challenging environments for many individuals with autism.
What if there was a tool that teaches peers, and professionals to understand what it feels like to have autism?
A VR educational game that is engaging, age-appropriate, fun and interactive.
A VR educational game that supports understanding, acceptance and empathy towards individuals with autism.
What if this VR game supported the development of friendships between individuals with autism and their peers?
The Play Groups Catch 22: A family would like their child with autism to have to attend a Play Groups program. They feel their child would benefit from the opportunity to play and make friends under the guidance of highly trained professionals. Families may also feel their child does not have the supports necessary to play and make friends in other environments. However, an essential part of the Play Groups program is that the child with autism attends with a peer from their natural peer group (expert player). Ah, the Play Groups Catch 22!
The Play Groups programs are unique and somewhat tricky to set up. The philosophy is that the intervention focuses on guiding the play and learning of both the child with autism and their peers. Therefore, the focus is on ensuring all the children are a good match in age, ability, and interests. However, once the programs start, the emphasis shifts to building relationships with and between the children. Building relationships can take some time. However, it is key to the success of the program. Building strong relationships enables us to support the development of group identity and of friendships.
During the Play Groups program, peers (expert players) learn on ‘how to’ play and make friends with the child with autism. If the peer is from the child’s natural peer group, then these new skills will transfer to another environment. Therefore, peers from the child with autism natural peer group are critical to the child’s success in the Play Groups program but more importantly, critical to the child’s success in other environments such as school.
Peers (expert players) who attend Play Groups from the natural peer group provide the following supports:
• Friendship. Having even one ‘friend’ at school can lower anxiety and increase engagement
• Group identity, because we all need to feel like we belong
• Modeling for other peers and adults, ‘how to’ successful play and interact with your child
• Rapid generalization of skills learned at Play Groups to other environments
• Opportunity to create lifelong friendships
Whether your child with autism attends Play Groups programs or not, below are some tips you can use to find the right peers to play with your child with autism and to avoid the Play Groups Catch 22:
Classmates – Usually, there are a few children in your child’s class that would make great expert players. Look for children who show interest in your child. Ask your child’s teacher if they might know which peer is a “mother hen,” a “class clown” or a “middle child.” All these personality types make good expert players. The Society can provide families with expert player invitation letters to circulate in your child’s class or other community settings. Offer to bring the peers with your child with autism. By doing so, you are encouraging registration as families are not required to do the drop-off or picks, and provides the players alone time during the trip to and from Play Groups each week.
Siblings and Cousins – Some siblings and cousins make great expert players, and some do not. Usually, we recommend siblings, and sometimes cousins join the Play Groups program, but in another group from their sibling/cousin with autism. This way they benefit from participating and learning at Play Groups without the stressors that may come with a pre-existing relationship.
Ask Your Friends. Your friends likely have children or nieces or nephews that would make great expert players. Request that they register their child in your child’s Play Groups program or another group.
Ask Your Family. Your family members may have friends whom they could ask. Requesting support from your family is a great way to involve them in learning about the Play Groups programs and your child’s development. They are also welcome to take the free online parent training at any time.
Ask Professionals. If you have other professionals working with your child, ask them if they have children or other clients who may be interested in registering their expert players. Asking for community supports is a great well to bring our community together.
Put up a Poster. Ask your child’s teacher, school, or community setting to post the expert player poster (provided here) This small act not only supports your child and family but also helps other families who may be struggling to find expert players
Expert players attend all our programs completely free of charge (register click here). Research suggests that expert players gain advanced skills while attending Play Groups programs. More importantly, they enjoy participating in the Play Groups programs and ask to come back again and again.
Changing the Game for Individuals with Autism and Their Peers
“You need to go and try that out.” said James Jacobs, CEO of Ziva Dynamics and a father of a child on the autism spectrum. James was referring to a virtual reality (VR) experience he had just demoed at a conference. Unbeknownst to James, this statement would begin a three-year journey towards the development of our Virtual Reality Autism Demystification program.
At the time, Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society (Friend 2 Friend) had just opened our second play centre. We were buried in work however, we somehow found the time to make the trip to Valve to try out the VR demo. The entire trip back to Vancouver I could not stop talking about how VR could be the perfect vehicle for fostering friendships between individuals with autism and their peers.
Flash forward three years, Friend 2 Friend has just completed our Virtual Reality Autism Demystification demo. With the support of Autism Speaks Canada and Archiact, we have created a VR experience based on our real-life Autism Demystification Simulation Game.
Like its real-life counterpart, the new Virtual Reality Autism Demystification demo uses the Friend 2 Friend evidence-based Autism Demystification® model to create a multi-sensory VR experience. The demo focuses on highlighting the sensory and social-communication challenges individuals with autism face at school and supports users to understand what it may feel like to have autism. As well as, illustrates the importance of understanding, acceptance, and empathy in aiding social inclusion and the development of friendships.
Being new to virtual reality, the evolution of the real-life program into a three-minute demo has been challenging. Therefore, the Friend 2 Friend team has spent the last seven months working intensely translating our ‘Simon Says’ spelling test into a sensory challenging VR spelling test.
Friend 2 Friend will spend the next four months user testing our Virtual Reality Autism Demystification demo throughout BC and abroad. Data collected from the user testing will support the creation of the full Virtual Reality Autism Demystification program.
With the launch of our unique and innovative Virtual Reality Autism Demystification demo, Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society once again demonstrates its place as a global leader in designing unique evidence-based, educational programs that bring together individuals with autism and their peers in the true spirit of play and friendships.
Interested in testing our VRADP demo? Visit us at the following events:
Or contact our office to set up an appointment.
Families will often say to us, “My child is too old to play”. However, after speaking with the family about what their child’s affinities are, we soon learn that their child does in fact play.
Play is therapeutic by its nature. It provides opportunities to do what we love, to relax and work through issues. Play also affords us time to be with friends as we engage in mutually enjoyable activities. How we play, who we play with, and what we choose to play with changes over the years. Although play changes we never, or we should never, stop playing.
Even if your child is a preteen, teen or even an adult they still need time to play every day. That is why at Friend 2 Friend we create Play Groups that are individually designed to the player’s affinities, needs, and skills. For example, Friend 2 Friend has created several “Gamers Clubs” in high schools and at our Play Centres in Vancouver BC. Continuing to use the principles and practices of the combined Integrated Play Groups®, SCERTS® and Autism Demystification® models, the materials and structure of the group are modified to fit the age and interests of the players. The players always direct the play, activities and materials while play guides provide social, communication and emotional support.
So, the next time you feel your child is too old to play try to think carefully about what they do that is meaningful, relaxing and enjoyable to them and how that may be their play. Once you have identified these activities, then consider how you can make that “play” into an opportunity to make friends and feel part of a group of same-aged peers.
Play is good for us – all of us – regardless of our age, skills, abilities and affinities!
Vancouver, BC – Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society announces a grant from Autism Speaks Canada to create a new Virtual Reality Autism Demystification® Program.
“Autism Speaks Canada is proud to support the Virtual Reality Autism Demystification demonstration, which reflects an innovative use of technology to support acceptance and inclusion of individuals with autism spectrum disorder. We are pleased to be supporting the development of such a critical tool and applaud the partners in their collaborative model of working together to support the community. Our Family Services Community Grants program supports community-based organizations serving the autism community. We are excited about the broad impact this project will have for all communities.” Jill Farber, Executive Director Autism Speaks Canada
Virtual Reality Autism Demystification® Program (VRADP) is a multi-level VR educational game enabling peers, parents and professionals to enjoy a simulated interactive game experience of “what it feels like” to have autism. The game focuses on building empathy, differing perspectives, while at the same time building real-life prosocial skills to enhance peer social interactions and to reduce bullying and feelings of isolation. This state of the art learning tool aims to build empathy, understanding and acceptance towards individuals with autism, throughout Canada and abroad.
“We are truly grateful to Autism Speaks Canada for their support in creating our new Virtual Reality Autism Demystification® Program”, states founder and Executive Director Heather McCracken. “This highly innovative project leverages the state-of-the-art VR platform to support the social, emotional and friendship needs of individuals with autism and their peers in the true spirit of play and friendships.”
Friend 2 Friend is a non-government funded, not-for-profit charity based in Vancouver, British Columbia Canada. They are the world’s leading innovator in creating unique programs designed to bring together children with autism with their peers. Since its founding in 2002, the Society has provided their real-world Autism Demystification programs to over 250,000 BC children and adults and countless more through their satellite partners and publications.
Some children and adults are highly sensitive to transitions. However, unlike adults who have the power to control transitions, children often do not have that same control. On top of that, children are not always able to tell us how they are feeling or what they need when they are feeling dysregulated during transitions.
Think about how we plan and organize our daily life to avoid the stress of transitions. We have so many tools we use such as, using our visual schedules, trying not to rush or be late, reducing the number of transitions, being consistent in our routines, providing ourselves with redirection during more stressful transitions. We even carry transition objects [almost everyone carries a smartphone these days], and sometimes we dangle a carrot [ever stopped for a coffee as a treat?] to help with those less preferred transitions.
Transitions and the Sensitive Child
Many children with autism are sensitive to transitions. There are so many factors that may make transitions difficult for them such as; Has the child slept well? Have they eaten? Are they sick or getting sick? Have they had a stressful day at school?
And then there is the emotional factor. If past transitions have been difficult for the child, then the child anticipates that every transition will be the same. This negative emotional memory adds stress to the transition. As the transition approaches, the child becomes more and more anxious and challenging behaviours may begin to escalate.
Want to learn more about supporting children with autism? Take our Autism Demystification® Online Course.
This past week I was asked to observe a novice player at a local preschool. The purpose of this visit was to provide recommendations for creating an inclusive preschool experience for this child and the peers.
What I observed, is what I often see when doing observations; a dedicated group of early childhood educators. The educators were clearly trying their best, but lacking the specialized training required to support the unique needs of children with autism.
I have long wanted to create a Play Groups preschool – perhaps now is the time!
In the meantime, I thought I would share simple tips for creating an inclusive preschool experience for children on the autism spectrum and their peers.
Tip 1. Regulation is the Key – Consider the child’s regulatory needs. These needs must be met first before they are ready and available for engagement and learning.
Tip 2. Match My Language – Too many words are hard to process. The rule of thumb is that we communicate with the child by matching their language paired with natural gestures, sign, and Picture Communication Symbols (PCS) to enhance language processing, and then add one word to model and enhance verbal language.
Tip 3. Behaviour is Communication – Regardless of the behaviour, it is just the child’s way of communicating their needs, wants or internal state. The best way to increase desired behaviours is to learn and use Positive Behavioural Supports (PBS).
Tip 4. I Want to Play – Even though a child may not engage in developmentally typical play, this does not mean they do not want to play with peers. They just need some help. To enhance peer play, learn the child’s affinities and use those affinities to engage the child, paired with providing the scaffolding required for the play to be successful.
Tip 5. Not About Me, Without Me – Never talk about a child in front of the child or the child’s peers – they can hear you and so can their peers.
Want to learn more? Sign up for our Autism Demystification® Online Course
The definition of “give” states: to freely transfer the possession of (something) to (someone). While most of us think to give means to give money, it is only in the running of a charity that you truly understand the meaning of “give”.
Time is a most valuable thing we can give to anyone or anything. The Team at Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society knows all about the value of giving time. That is because we spend a lot of time giving to the children with and without autism and families we support.
The Friend 2 Friend Team gives our time to:
Understand each unique individual child for who they are.
Know and understand each child’s affinity.
Create materials and play themes that are affinity based so that children are natural drawn to engage with them.
Assess each child’s unique needs, challenges and gifts and then to design an individualized program for each child.
Support families not only in understanding our programs, but also ensuring they have resources they need from the community.
Ensure the Play Centres have materials that are engaging and fun to support the development of play and friendships.
Ensure the Play Centres are designed well, are clean and tidy making them a fun and safe place to play and make friends.
Find and build new Play Centre locations in an effort to meet the overwhelming demand for our unique peer play programs.
Create new programs to meet the need for our programs world-wide.
Train play guides to ensure the staff is well trained and able to provide programs.
Train others, around the world, who want to use our programs and models with children in their community.
And finally, we give our time to raise money. Money that ensures we have the time needed to support children with autism to play, make friends and feel accepted for who they are within their schools and communities.
Therefore, this year on Giving Tuesday November 28 regardless of which charity you give to, remember that Giving Tuesday is All About Giving Time.
New Family Training Online course is offered to families (parents, grandparents, primary caregivers) of children with autism and related needs ages 3 through 18.
This self-directed course enables families to access our online parent training completely free of charge at any time from the convenience of their own home. The online session takes approximately 60-minutes to complete, and includes the following information:
Introduction to Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society
Tips for Parents
Overview of our Play Centre Programs
The goal of the session is to support families to better understand autism and provide helpful tips and strategies as they support their child’s unique social, communication and peer play needs. In addition, the session provides families with information about our Play Centre programs.
At school this week during lunch break Jason approached an older boy. Attempting to initiate play with the boy, Jason asks, “Would you like to hear a song?” The older boy answers, “Yes”. Jason proceeded to sing his song. The older boy tells him to stop. However, Jason has the kind of mind that autism. Therefore, once he has started a song – he must finish the song. And Jason keeps singing. The older boy says, “If you don’t stop I will hit you”. Jason is completely caught off guard (he considered the social interaction to be a very positive one), and runs away. The older boy chases him. Jason, terrified, screams at the top of his lungs and continues to run.
“I screamed so loud I lost my voice”, Jason says to the playground teacher when asking for help. The playground teacher answers, “I told you not to sing that song”.
Luckily, Jason attends the Integrated Play Groups® program at the Friend 2 Friend Play Centre with Cayleigh, one of his classmates and an expert player. Cayleigh hears Jason screaming from across the playground and comes to his aid. She locates Jason, helps him to feel better, and takes him to the office where he can call his mother.
However, in recent years, more emphasis has been placed on behavioural interventions and teaching individuals with autism ‘social skills’. But at Friend 2 Friend we have always known that peer play and friendships are a necessity for children with autism. Therefore, we have made friendships the focus of our programs and services for more than 15 years. Our programs concentrate on teaching peers how to understand, accept, empathize and play with their peers on the autism continuum. We work to develop empathy to change the minds, attitudes and skills of the typically developing peers as a means of intervention.
Individuals with autism have unique social and communication needs. This makes the development of the peer play and friendships between children with autism and peers a necessity not a luxury. While peer play and friendships are important for social and emotional growth, friendships are important to children’s health and safety as well.
“Peers are a necessity not a luxury in human development” W.W. Hartup
Want to learn more? Autism Demystification® Online Course