Currently this research field is somewhat limited (at an early stage of development) but the proposed project seeks to test and explore ways that digital technology (in this case VR head-mounted-displays) can be used as a mechanism to enable communication and social skills acquisition for people with autism; leading to greater employability opportunities.

It is through developing a greater understanding of this field that we can start to “improve health and well-being for the population” using digital technologies and large parts of the innovative work in this area have taken place in the US (i.e. University of California, Davis and MSU). A recently published report by the Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE, 2013) suggested that research into autism in the UK is primarily focused on biology, brain and cognition whereas in the US research tends to be more evenly distributed to include; diagnosis, causes, support services and interventions (Pellicano et al. 2013). In addition this report suggests that: “the US spends an average of 18 times the amount the UK does on autism research in accordance with population size […] the equivalent of £75.79 per person with autism in 2010, while the UK spent just £4.26”. This reveals that the US have priorities for research in this area, where the UK might do well to both collaborate further with US researchers seeking to exploit and develop a collaborative agenda in the area of autism research.

This project (through a secondment to the USA at Michigan State University) will help to provide a greater evidence-base for the role of VRTs in the context of people with autism (Newbutt, 2014) to help ensure that the role and use of technologies can both involve users and researchers to design and develop material that is suitable for the range of users (low functioning – high functioning) (Parsons et al., 2013).

This project seeks to consider the role of virtual reality technology (VRT) in influencing behaviour and informing interventions for people with autism from social skills and independent-living perspectives. What this means is that I will collaborate with an already established team at Michigan State University (MSU), College of Education, Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology & Special Education. My work to date has focused on communication and appearance preferences; both key aspects related to immersion and ‘connection’ with a virtual environment.

This project is located at MSU where they are seeking to develop Virtual Reality Independent Living Training (VR-ILT) interventions in order to provide effective training for individuals with ASD in life-like contexts under VRT environments to enhance independent living skills and functioning; including social skills development. This project/ work involves working with both MSU researchers and members of the autism community in Michigan (connections that MSU have already established at Peckham Inc.).

This work will output the following through an exploratory case study:


  • A virtual reality intervention scenario to help develop social skills development (feeding into enhanced independent living contexts and employability agendas);
  • A series of sessions with invited members of the autism and typically-developing community to experience and ‘test’ the environment;
  • Measure both immersion and development of social skills during and after the intervention;
  • Develop interdisciplinary working relationships.


University of the West of England, Frenchay Campus, Coldharbour Lane, Bristol. BS16 1QY



Phone: +44 (0)117 3287881

Email: nigel[dot]newbutt[at]uwe[dot]ac[dot]uk

Follow me on Twitter: @newbutt

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