Young man spraying flowers with water

New Technology and New Love Bring a New Reality to DDI

Standing in line is hard. Dealing with large crowds and loud noises is hard. But for people with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), these circumstances can be unbearable. This type of sensory overload is something that the people we support struggle with on a daily basis, often making it difficult to enjoy new places and experiences.

The great news is that it doesn’t have to be so challenging. At Developmental Disabilities Institute (DDI) we have found a solution to help ease the unpredictability and novelty of discovering something for the first time. DDI is incorporating Google Expeditions Virtual Reality headsets into the teaching curriculum for the adults we support.

With Google Expeditions, an immersive education application that allows teachers and learners to explore the world through over 800 virtual-reality (VR) and 100 augmented-reality (AR) tours, the children and adults served at DDI can swim with sharks, visit outer space, tour a museum — just about anything you can think of—without leaving the comfort of familiar spaces.

Individual with staff using VR headset

In addition, tours will be developed and tailored for an individual’s surroundings with the use of Google Tour Creator and 360 Degree Photography. Personalized tours deliver a more authentic way to help the desensitization of a stressful location or community event. This technology lends itself to VR-driven lessons with pre- and post-tests to identify the success of desensitization programs and new information acquired through VR. A trip to the grocery store, movie theater, or doctor’s office can be simulated, experienced, and evaluated in a way like never before.

Using this cutting-edge technology, we offer the wonders of the world and more in a predictable, relaxed way that combats sensory challenges and eases the burden of unfamiliarity. “This technology is a means to providing education and experiences to differently abled persons who may not have the opportunity to explore these possibilities without fear or excessive risk to their health and safety holding them back” commented Residence Manager Ross Hendrickson.

Several members of DDI’s Adult Services Program were captivated during the pilot screening of the virtual reality tours. They were using new vocabulary words with ease, and one of the young men was asking if he could take a virtual trip to Puerto Rico. Watching the smiles and expressions on their faces as they journeyed through the Grand Canyon was heartwarming. The impact of this experience for the individuals at DDI inspired an immediate response.

People appreciate journeys for many different reasons. For John Kenny and Ellen McBurney, the journey has been about helping to create initiatives benefitting the people supported by DDI. This partnership began while John and Ellen were students in the Executive-in-Residence Program (EIRP) of The Peter J. Tobin College of Business at St. John’s University. This unique program provides students with opportunities to engage in real-world business consulting, and DDI was fortunate to be the project sponsor. This connection cultivated a friendship with John and Ellen, which lead to a number of fundraising efforts, including several “Bridge to the Beach” Walks and hiking a couple of snowy mountains. To date, they have helped to raise over $75,000 for DDI.

John and Ellen collage

Not only did their love for the individuals supported by DDI grow but also their love for one another. And even as they prepared to walk down the aisle, the couple continued to think of DDI and were so thrilled when they heard the possibilities opened up by the Google Expeditions Virtual Reality headsets that they were eager to help. John and Ellen requested in lieu of wedding gifts that donations be made to DDI to purchase additional kits for the adults supported by DDI.

With this technology, we believe that it will offer great possibilities for the individuals supported at DDI to experience new places and adventures, adjust to environments that once were overwhelming, experience personal growth and fulfillment, and inform developers at Google how virtual tours can best support people with ASD.

Support the journey and Give the Gift of Adventure today!