VR/AR Teaching for Students with ADHD and ASD: How to Help Them Thrive

Neurodiversity is a term that has gained recognition in recent years as a way of describing the natural variation in human brain development and function. It acknowledges that different people have different cognitive strengths and weaknesses and that these differences are part of the normal range of human diversity. For example, some people may have exceptional skills in visual thinking, while others may excel in verbal communication or problem-solving. For people with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity Disorder), these differences can create significant challenges and opportunities in their daily lives.

You may wonder why I threw those two disorders into one bag in this article.

An estimated 30 to 80 percent of children with autism also meet the criteria for ADHD and, conversely, 20 to 50 percent of children with ADHD for autism spectrum disorder.

source: Spectrumnews.org

Feel The Struggle

Imagine navigating a crowded shopping mall with hypersensitive hearing, where every sound is amplified to the point of overwhelming. Or struggling to focus on a lecture while your mind constantly jumps from one thought to another, making it difficult to follow along with the speaker. Unfortunately, for neurodiverse individuals, these are not just hypothetical scenarios but everyday experiences that can make seemingly the simplest tasks overwhelming and exhausting.

Want other examples?

Alex is a child with ADHD. He’s sitting in a classroom. You may not notice this as much, but the space is full of distractions. The sound of pencils tapping, classmates whispering, and chairs scraping against the floor – Alex’s brain registers these small things as important and worth noticing. The teacher’s voice becomes muffled in this chaos, and the child’s attention drifts away.

Despite Alex’s best efforts to focus, he finds himself daydreaming, doodling, or fidgeting with their desk. He knows he should pay attention, but staying focused is hard. Alex feels frustrated, embarrassed, or ashamed that he can’t keep up with his peers despite trying his best.

Sarah is a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder. As a result, she finds it hard to understand the social cues of her classmates, like when it’s her turn to speak or how to join a group activity. This can make her feel isolated and misunderstood. Despite Sarah’s best efforts to engage with the class, the environment can be too much for her to handle, and she may feel like she doesn’t belong or is failing.

Social interactions, sensory processing, attention, and emotional regulation are just some of the areas that can be affected by neurodiversity, making it challenging for people with autism and ADHD to navigate the world around them.

On the Other Hand

Despite these challenges, neurodiverse individuals have many strengths and talents often overlooked in society. Many people with autism, for example, have exceptional abilities in pattern recognition, visual thinking, and attention to detail, making them well-suited for careers in technology, design, and engineering. Similarly, people with ADHD may have high levels of creativity, spontaneity, and energy, making them excellent entrepreneurs, artists, or creative workers.

However, to fully realize their potential, neurodiverse individuals need support in implementing strategies that help them show their unique needs and strengths. In addition, advances in technology, such as virtual and augmented reality, offer new hope for addressing these challenges and improving the lives of neurodiverse individuals.

By providing a safe and controlled environment for learning, practicing social skills, and improving attention and sensory processing, VR/AR technologies have the potential to revolutionize the way we support and empower neurodiverse individuals.

Learning Challenges to Face Before Students Thrive

“You just need to focus”

“You’re being too sensitive”

“Why are you acting so weird”

Talented but lazy”

“Why can’t you just sit still”

“It’s just an excuse for your bad behavior”

These are just some common phrases people with ADHD or ASD may hear from people unaware of those conditions. Some of the behaviors may look easy to manage for the neurotypical person, but for other students, it may be a real struggle.

“You just need to focus”

As you saw in one of the examples at the beginning of this article, attention and focus can be significant challenges for individuals with ADHD. They may have difficulty focusing on a task for an extended period or become easily distracted by external stimuli. This can make it hard for them to engage with learning materials and follow instructions, particularly in traditional classroom settings that may not be optimized for their needs. And it doesn’t depend on their willingness to focus on your words or the task they must complete.

On the other hand, ADHDers have incredible power to hyper-focus on the topics and tasks they find interesting. Then they can learn faster and more effectively than the average student.

“You’re being too sensitive”

Similarly, sensory processing can be a significant challenge for both individuals with ADHD and autism. They may be hypersensitive to certain sounds, textures, or visual stimuli, which can be overwhelming and distracting. This can make it difficult for them to concentrate on learning materials, mainly if they are in a noisy or chaotic environment.

Sometimes the reaction to the stimuli can be emotional – anger, anxiety and exhaustion are some of the emotions that may appear. Ask the student what caused the response and how you can help overcome the problem. A helping hand is all they need. Sometimes, turning the broken buzzing light off may be the only necessary thing to do to support them in getting back on track.

“Why are you acting so weird”

Social interaction is another area that can be particularly challenging for individuals with autism or ADHD. They may struggle to understand social cues or engage in reciprocal communication with peers, making it difficult for them to form friendships or navigate social situations. This can impact their learning experience, particularly if they feel isolated or excluded from group activities.

You may help them connect with the group with the small steps. Slowly activate them to participate actively in a group discussion by giving them a space to talk and helping them understand when is the perfect moment to share their valuable insights. If, in your classroom, such a person will feel welcomed and accepted, you may see a big difference.

“Talented but lazy”

Students with ADHD and autism may also struggle with executive function skills, such as planning, organization, and time management. This can make it difficult for them to keep track of assignments, prioritize tasks, and meet deadlines, impacting their academic performance.

You can assist students to help them divide their tasks into a few parts and prioritize them, give intermediate deadlines and written directions and watch how better their performance is.

“Why can’t you just sit still”

ADHD and autism can both affect a child’s ability to regulate their behavior and impulses, as well as their ability to process sensory information. This can make it difficult for them to sit still, stay focused, and engage in typical classroom activities. As a result, they may appear disruptive, fidgety, or uninterested, leading to frustration from teachers or peers who may not understand their underlying challenges.

It’s important to understand that those fidgeting and disruptive students don’t ignore you – these are just sensory activities. Those neurodivergent brains are just looking for something that helps them focus or stay calm – so let them. Pop-it or fidget spinner in their hands probably isn’t disturbing your lesson. However, they also may require some brain breaks. Then you can allow them to stand up and take a short walk around the classroom or let them do some exercises.

“It’s just an excuse for your bad behavior”

For some people, students with ADHD or ASD communicating their conditions and needs may seem like just someone finding excuses for their bad behavior. But it’s not the case. Those kids, adolescents, and adults are trying their best to overcome their weaknesses. They often put much more work into achieving goals than other students.

They also have excellent skills like thinking out of the box and creativity; ADHD students can behave much more effectively under stressful circumstances. Autistic people can be so focused on specific subjects that they will become experts really fast. And all their strengths will blossom when they feel they can be themselves and still be accepted in the group.

However, it’s important to note that these challenges do not mean that individuals with ADHD and autism cannot learn or achieve academic success. They can thrive and reach their full potential with the proper support and accommodations. Their classroom expectations may be different, but this is where technology, such as VR/AR, can play a valuable role in providing a more accessible and inclusive learning environment for them.

By addressing some of the key challenges associated with neurodiversity, VR/AR technologies have the potential to revolutionize the way we teach and support neurodiverse learners.

Revolutionizing Neurodiverse Education with VR/AR

Minimize Distractions and Sensory Overload

One of the key advantages of VR/AR technologies in education is their ability to minimize distractions during the learning process. In addition, VR/AR environments can be adjusted to the person’s acceptable level of stimuli and distractions. For example, some students may find it helpful to work in a calm, predictable, and free from external distractions space, but some may need a higher level of stimuli to stay focused on one task.

Additionally, virtual reality is already immersive itself. It helps students focus on the virtual world rather than the noises around them, phone notifications or small talk between other students during the learning process. That’s why its effectiveness in teaching is higher than traditional methods.

Moreover, VR/AR can give learners control over their learning environment. For example, learners can adjust the volume, lighting, or other environmental factors to suit their specific sensory needs. This can help learners feel more comfortable and in control, which can reduce anxiety and help them stay focused on the task at hand.

Visual Cues Help a Lot

VR/AR technologies can be beneficial for neurodiverse learners who benefit from visual cues and concrete learning materials. These learners may struggle with abstract concepts and find connecting new information to real-world situations difficult. In this context, VR/AR can provide visual and interactive learning experiences that help make abstract concepts more tangible and engaging.

For example, VR/AR simulations can help learners visualize complex ideas, such as scientific or mathematical concepts. These simulations can provide a more engaging and interactive experience that helps learners better understand the material. Similarly, AR tools can give visual cues that help learners stay focused, such as highlighting important information or guiding learners through a sequence of steps or visual schedules.

Moreover, VR/AR can create interactive and immersive environments that help learners explore and interact with different topics more engagingly and memorably. This is particularly important for learners with ADHD, who may struggle to sustain their attention and focus on traditional learning materials. By providing an immersive and interactive learning experience, VR/AR can help learners achieve better results.

Support Routines and Transitions

One of these students’ most significant challenges is adapting to changes in their environment and routines. For example, transitions from one activity to another can be difficult, and changes to the classroom environment or schedule can be overwhelming.

However, VR/AR can provide a predictable and structured environment that helps students with ADHD and ASD feel more in control and prepared for changes. Virtual simulations can introduce new routines and transitions by providing multi-step directions in a safe and controlled environment before they are implemented in real-life situations. This can help reduce anxiety and stress.

In addition, VR/AR can provide visual and audio cues that help students stay on task and transition from one activity to another. For example, AR tools can remind students of upcoming transitions or changes in routine, such as a countdown timer or visual schedules. This can help students better manage their time and stay on task, reducing the likelihood of distractions or disengagement.

Virtual simulations can create scenarios that help students create their own strategies to transition between activities, such as moving from one subject to another or from one classroom to another. VR/AR can help students build their confidence and improve their ability to manage transitions and routines by providing a fun and engaging way to practice these skills.

Student’s Interests as a Tool

Hyperfocus in ADHD and the intense focus or fixation on specific interests in ASD can appear similar on the surface. However, they are different phenomena with distinct underlying causes.

Hyperfocus is a common symptom of ADHD, and it refers to the ability to focus intensely on a specific task or activity to the exclusion of other things. This can be a double-edged sword. It can lead to impressive productivity and creativity in some contexts but can also interfere with social relationships and other essential aspects of life.

People with ASD may have a strong, narrow focus on particular topics, hobbies, or objects to the extent that they may appear obsessed with them. This can manifest as a passionate interest in a specific subject, a preoccupation with a particular type of toy or object, or a fascination with a particular routine or ritual.

While these phenomena can appear similar, they are driven by different underlying causes. Additionally, ADHD hyperfocus tends to be more variable and situation-dependent, while ASD interests tend to be more stable and predictable over time. But in both cases, incorporating those special interests in the teaching strategies for students with ADHD and ADS may be beneficial.

As mentioned earlier, VR/AR can give students more agency and control over their learning experiences. Students can be allowed to design and create their own virtual simulations or AR models that reflect their interests and learning goals. This can help students feel more invested in their learning and can support a more student-centered approach to teaching.

Gamification as a Way to Frequent Positive Reinforcement

No matter if you are a neurotypical or neurodiverse person, which both are great, we are learning appropriate behavior thanks to positive reinforcement. Why is it so important to give frequent feedback?

Positive reinforcement provides a clear structure and expectation for behavior, which can help to reduce distractibility and impulsivity and promote more goal-directed behavior.

It’s based on the principle of rewarding desired behavior rather than punishing undesired ones. This can be particularly effective for individuals with ADHD and ASD, who may be more sensitive to criticism or negative feedback(as they often deal with it). Individuals can build self-confidence and motivation to continue learning and developing skills by focusing on positive feedback and reinforcement. Also, ADHD students may find it a great dopaminogenic thing.

By incorporating game-like elements such as rewards, points, and progress indicators, users can feel a sense of accomplishment and motivation to continue engaging with the VR/AR app and learning overall. Additionally, gamification can provide immediate feedback and reinforcement for desired behaviors, which can help to build self-confidence and reinforce positive social interactions.

It’s All About Hands-On Experience

Traditional teaching techniques may not be enough for neurodivergent students, who may struggle with converting theoretical knowledge into actions. That’s why VR training may be so beneficial for them. Students may not only moderate the level of disruption during the learning process but in this adjusted to their needs environment, they can learn practical skills fast and effectively.

VR training can support students in developing practical skills more effectively and with greater retention. For example, students studying engineering can use VR simulations to practice assembling complex machinery or designing and testing prototypes, while business students can use VR simulations to practice negotiating deals or managing teams.

But children can also benefit from virtual chemistry labs and other solutions that can help them observe and try all the exciting activities connected with the theoretical knowledge they gained earlier.

Progress reports available in the VR app can help teachers adjust the learning process to the student’s needs and observe their achievements and fields in which they struggle. This can lead to a better understanding of students’ behavior and support learning.

But VR training is also a perfect tool to help neurodivergent students control their condition and gain new social skills. Thanks to the possibility of using instructional strategies in the teaching process and the repetitive training character, it may be highly suitable for such students.

And That’s Not Even a Percentage of the Benefits!

The study showed that VR/AR solutions support ADHD students thanks to their engaging and motivating character and can also improve behavioral and cognitive skills. It is proven that children with ASD respond very well to treating phobias and anxiety with virtual reality.

You may wonder how students will respond to a VR headset. So research confirmed that it seems like they not only don’t have any problems wearing them, but they also often find it very interesting and exciting to be put in a virtual environment.

Immersive technologies are pretending to be an excellent tool worth implementing in ADHD and ASD students’ learning process.

I’ve Got an Idea – But Where to Start?

Yes, I know reading the whole article was a long way. But maybe you will now think differently about the learning challenges that students with ADHD and ASD may be facing. Maybe you already have an idea of how to implement immersive technologies into the teaching process and create an inclusive learning environment for neurodiverse students.

We can help you develop effective and engaging VR/AR apps that will help you elevate the teaching process or do further research on that topic. Just leave us a few words. We’ve got you covered.

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New technologies enthusiast. She bought her own VR headset after using one for a few minutes. Always a busy cognitive science student 🙂