Experience and lessons learned from an Erasmus+ project developing virtual training environments for people from the autistic spectrum
"If you know an autistic person, then you know exactly one autistic person." This phrase was frequently used in the interviews conducted as part of the needs assessment in the Erasmus+ AutismVR project. The interviewees - partly people with ASD, partly people with close personal or professional contact - emphasised time and again how little one can generalise the experiences of or with individuals. But that was precisely the aim of this needs analysis: to find out which everyday situations people from the autistic spectrum experience as particularly difficult and challenging. A special focus was placed on those situations that are part of everyday working life in the broadest sense. The interviews were conducted in the countries of the project partners, namely Denmark, France, Cyprus, Great Britain and Germany, and their analysis forms the basis for the development of 10 virtual training environments, which should make it easier for people with ASD to cope with exactly these everyday situations and to be able to participate in social life.
Now we pretend that ...
Apart from the realisation that the generalisation of results in this project had to be approached even more cautiously than in other contexts and that close contact with the target group throughout the entire development period is indispensable, a further challenge arose from the interviews: It is particularly difficult for people from the autistic spectrum to put themselves in "as if" situations, for example pretending to talk to a supervisor even though they are sitting opposite a teacher. For the AutismVR project, it follows that the training environments that are developed should be as close as possible to the reality of the future users. This is the only way to enable them to use the virtual space experience in their real world.
But it is precisely in the situation that was most frequently mentioned in the interviews in all countries that the national differences become particularly apparent: the use of public transport. Starting with the research of timetables to the purchase and validation of a ticket, the possibilities and customs in the different countries, often even regionally, are very different. But what does this mean for the project? There is little point in developing public transport transnationally as one of the ten VR training environments. As a consequence, the project partners decided to create five national or regional environments which can probably be used much less generally, but which can be of real help to people with ASD in the respective regions. In detail these are ...
- a tram ride in Leipzig (Germany)
- a bus trip in Pau (France)
- a metro journey in London (Great Britain)
- a train journey in Denmark
- a trip by intercity bus in Cyprus
Training for everyday life
For the remaining five environments, which are to be created as virtual training simulations, the choice fell on those situations which, on the one hand, came up particularly frequently in the interviews and can be implemented transnationally, as their design does not depend on national or regional peculiarities. On the other hand, a special focus was placed on the world of work, in line with the project's goal of supporting people with ASD to find their way into the world of work, to orientate themselves in everyday working life, to find their way in a new environment and to make it easier for them to deal with changes in their everyday life.
A visit to the doctor: The first challenge in this scenario will be to first make an appointment by telephone. Telephone calls in general are a stressful experience for people with ASD because the person you are talking to expects a prompt reaction to what is said. Once an appointment has been made, the actual visit to the doctor will begin, during which the user will have to answer various questions from the receptionist and doctor and follow instructions, depending on the symptoms.
Shopping in the supermarket: In this scenario, the aim is to make users feel confident about their behaviour in the supermarket. They are asked to look for the right goods according to a predetermined shopping list and put them in their shopping basket, to find their way around the supermarket (despite many products on the shelves and many noises around them), to ask for help, to respond to questions from others if necessary, to queue at the checkout and to pay.
A job interview: In this scenario, the main aim is to get involved in this particularly uncertain but in real life very decisive situation and to react adequately to the questions of the potential employer. The focus here is on more general questions about one's own background, motivation, goals, etc. rather than on subject-specific issues. Small talk with unknown people will be integrated as a special challenge.
The first day of work: In this situation, too, the first priority is to face up to the uncertain and new. The working environment will be an office where the user will meet the new supervisor, will be assigned the workplace, will have to deal with a malfunctioning photocopier and will finally be called for a conversation with the supervisor without knowing the reason for it.
A lunch break with colleagues: In this training environment the user will have lunch with colleagues. He/she has brought his/her own lunch from home, wants to heat it up in the common kitchen in the microwave and then eats with the others in a common room. The aim here is, on the one hand, to react spontaneously to situations (Is the microwave free for use?) and, on the other hand, to interact with the other people and participate in small talk during the meal.
When designing the environments, an attempt is made to integrate as many of the social aspects mentioned by the interviewees, which are a challenge everywhere in everyday life, into the environments as possible: For example, greetings of different kinds will occur in almost all environments. During the job interview, on the first day of work and also during the lunch break, the users will meet different people, sometimes for the first time, and will have to orient themselves and behave in a group. As mentioned above, small talk is also practised in these environments.
Adapting everyday working life together
The complexity of (social) everyday life - the project team is aware of this - cannot be depicted in VR environments. However, with the concrete parts that will be implemented in the AutismVR project, hopefully many people with ASD will be given the opportunity to face these situations in a protected space and thus gain confidence for everyday life.
At the same time, the project is working on a handbook that will contribute to raising awareness among employers. The aim is to show how working environments and everyday working life can be designed in such a way that both people with ASD and their "neurotypical" colleagues feel comfortable and can work optimally.
Further information about the project is available here: https://www.autism-vr.eu