Inside a classroom in Jefferson-Morgan Elementary School, life skills and autistic support teacher Brittany McIntire is walking third-grader Ian Mason through a Halloween virtual reality game.
Ian is wearing virtual reality goggles. What he sees, McIntyre sees mirrored on his iPad. For the next few minutes, the two go through a simulation, working through questions and answers.
“Do you want to knock or ring the door bell?” McIntire asks as Ian approaches the door.
“Ring,” says Ian, pushing the door bell.
When a woman opens the door, holds out a tray of candy and says, “Happy Halloween,” McIntire prompts Ian, “What do you say?”
“Trick-or-treat! Whoah!” Ian answers excitedly, and reaches for a piece of candy.
It seems like a simple educational game any kid would play. But really, it’s so much more.
This VR system McIntire uses in her classroom is from Floreo, a Washington, DC-based company that uses technology to help children with autism and those on the autism spectrum to cultivate real-world skills and handle common social situations and unplanned events without them needing to be physically present in them.
For example, Floreo helps students in McIntire’s class to practice school hallway experiences, where students encounter peers in the halls and practice interacting and communicating with them.
Floreo also includes lessons on how students can handle cafeteria social skills, classroom social skills, police encounters, and hundreds more.
And, in VR, the lessons are repeatable and personalized.
“It’s so good for social interaction,” said McIntire, noting one lesson in which a student is sitting across the lunch table from classmates who are eating pizza. “(The students) say, ‘I like pizza, do you like pizza?’ and then the student is prompted to answer and say what kind they like. Just having that spontaneous conversation back and forth really helps them because in the real world, when they’re in the cafeteria, they can use that practice to actually interact with fellow peers.”
There also are calming and alerting experiences students can practice for those times when they get stressed or anxious.
Studies show a virtual reality environment makes it easier for children with autism, who may struggle to interpret nonverbal clues, to focus on a skill being taught in the lessons, and Sara Bates, J-M’s Director of Special Services, said the VR program is having a positive impact on the students.
“There’s a ton of data that shows video modeling helps kids on the spectrum learn, so this takes that and builds on that concept, where it’s more than just video modeling. You’re actually in the video participating,” said Bates. “It’s been hugely beneficial.”
In addition to providing fun and relevant lessons for students, McIntire uses Floreo to track student progress and monitor what’s working for them.
“It’s going better than we even thought it would,” said McIntire. “The kids love it. For them, it’s just fun; they don’t even realize they’re learning and practicing skills. We actually call it ‘game time,’ but really it’s educational.”
Floreo was created by Vijay Ravindran, whose son is autistic. His mission is to help every child reach their full potential – the name Floreo, in fact, comes from the Latin root for the word “flourish.”
Jefferson-Morgan Superintendent Brandon Robinson said the elementary school launched the Floreo pilot program earlier this year and, based on positive results, plans to expand to the high school as early as next semester.
Teachers from other school districts have scheduled visits to JM to see how Floreo works in the classroom.
“We look at innovative things for all of our kids, and sometimes it doesn’t fit in learning skills and autistic support classroom, but this is something that was made with exactly that intention, for those kids, and that’s what I’m most proud of,” said Robinson. “We’ve got all kinds of technology for all of our students, but this is tailor-made for our students.
“The first time I saw it in action, it was amazing to watch the students use it. We, all of us here, were smiling. It brings you joy to see what they’re getting out of it.”