Using virtual reality to help youngsters with autism into work

More than 20 youngsters with autism learnt how to code and experienced virtual reality as part of an event to help them into the workplace.

The workshop, run by Dennis Publishing and Microsoft, allowed those taking part to “immerse themselves in technology” and build skills to reduce their chances of becoming one of the 85% of people affected by autism who are not in full-time employment.

The participants – aged between seven and 19 – were taught to code using the BBC micro:bit – a programmable mini-computer that features an LED display, accelerometer, compass, micro USB plug and external battery pack. They learned to light up the LEDs, and change that display by moving and turning the micro:bit.

The 22 youngsters, from the South London-based autism charity CASPA, also experienced virtual reality with VISR cardboard headsets and Windows 10 phones, and the HTC Vive. VISR is a smartphone-compatible device that allows users to see computer-generated worlds by creating two views of the same scene – one from the position of the left eye and the other from the position of the right eye. Emerging from Microsoft’s start-up incubator, Accelerator, the company behind the headset – both are called VISR – is selling it from as little as £4.80.

The group were then fully immersed in virtual reality by trying out the HTC Vive, a headset that is expected to cost nearly £700 when it is released in the UK. Using the handsets, the youngsters created objects such as trees and benches in the virtual world, while beehives emitted bees that flew at them and cherry blossom blew off trees and swirled around them.

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Drawings the youngsters finished earlier in the day will now be uploaded into the unique virtual world they created, forging a direct link between their imagination and the technology they used.

Justice Coburn, 10 years old

Justice has a diagnosis of autism, a condition which affects a person’s social & communication skills, which can make life extremely difficult for him, particularly in a mainstream environment. He is at school part-time due to the issues surrounding his condition. But he is calm and focused as he tells me he loves technology and coding; he’s even created his own games using a Windows PC, adding that coding with a BBC micro:bit is “easy”. Suddenly his expression turns sad and he admits he doesn’t use computers enough in his everyday life. “I don’t really do this at school,” he says. “I would love to do this every day.” Justice points to the coding skills he has learnt at the CASPA event on Wednesday as proof he is improving himself and building up his skills and confidence.

Helen Dyer, from CASPA, said: “We are extremely proud to be working with both Microsoft and Dennis on this event. Helping our young people from CASPA to thrive in the workplace is one of our main aims. Introducing them to world of coding, where they can actually build something and see it work, is a fantastic way for them to see how their specialist skills and interest in IT and computers can be translated into something that could enable them to access the world of work in the near future.”

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Although computing has been on the national curriculum since 2014, there is a fear that UK children are falling behind in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). However, Andrew Webber, who works in Developer Experience for Microsoft UK, said he hoped that event “inspires children affected by autism to continue to learn about computing” and go on to be the software developers of the future”.

Charlie Gaskain, nine years old

Charlie has recently started at a new school, although it wasn’t his choice; he didn’t want or need more turmoil in his young life. The nine-year-old, who suffers from autism, was expelled from his last school. Now he appears excited and animated as he tells me he uses computers a lot at home, creating his own animations and games. He quickly adds that the CASPA day was “awesome” and shows me how well he can use his mobile phone. He smiles when someone mentions he will leave the event with free Minecraft merchandise. “I love Minecraft,” he says. “I would like to do more of this; there’s not enough of this at school.”

Dave Coplin, Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft, added: “Working with Dennis and CASPA on this event helped us to showcase the potential of workplace diversity in the UK and gave us a wonderful opportunity to help young people affected by autism to connect a love and understanding of technology with the business and communication skills that will enable them to thrive in the world of work.”