Sixteen year-old Matthew Nystrom describes himself as someone who likes to learn everything he can about the world.
"My personal passion is animals, the natural world and how our... how the planet works basically," says Nystrom.
Nystrom has autism. The diagnosis hasn't diminished his intellect, but it does leave him challenged in some ways.
"There are some areas where I do not do the greatest, and those would actually be like in math, because I can't do algebra very well," he says.
Nystrom's learning behavior is what UC Davis researchers want to study.They're using technology to simulate a classroom to see how autistic children between the ages of 8 and 18 perform in it.
NAVIGATING THROUGH A VIRTUAL CLASSROOM
The UC Davis researchers put Nystrom in a chair and fit him with a headset that introduces him into a virtual classroom. The headgear has a visor and headphones to shield his senses from his surroundings.
"We have in that classroom several other students and some adults that they are in essence talking to," says Educational Psychologist Mary Gwaltney.
Gwaltney asks questions into a microphone, like what he did her do on his last birthday? What are his favorite places to go out to eat?
Nystrom hears the questions through his headphones, while he sees a virtual world.
The visor provides an image that looks like an animation. In it, Nystrom looks across a table at nine three dimensional people, also known as avatars. He can only see a few at a time and he must move his head to make eye contact with all of them. Avatars he doesn't look at, may start to fade. He rubs his hands vigorously as he prepares himself to answer questions.
"One of my personal favorites was actually when we went down...was when we went down to San Diego in southern California," says Nystrom, recounting one of his favorite vacations while looking at fellow students in a virtual world.
MINING DATA TO IMPROVE LEARNING FOR AUTISTIC STUDENTS
Researchers tease data from the way participants like Nystrom talk and look at their virtual peers. They want to know how many avatars his eyes connect with, and for how long. The researchers hope to create a base of knowledge they can use to help kids with learning differences pay better attention.
"In the long run, we're hoping to establish some treatment protocols using the virtual opportunities that we have," says Gwaltney. "Fading was one thing that we needed to look at to determine does this artificial cue change behavior at all, or doesn't it?"
Dr. Peter Mundy is Director of Educational Research at UC Davis' MIND Institute. He says there's not a wide body of knowledge about how to teach kids with autism, who pay attention to different things than other people do.
"We really have to know how those children are developing, what impedes and what facilitates their development in school," says Mundy. He says there's a need to "provide information that advances the ability of teachers and schools to provide the right education for [autistic] children."
PREMINARY FINDINGS GIVE INSIGHT, BUT MORE RESEARCH NEEDED
In the first two years of study, the Virtual Reality Lab made a basic but important discovery; the cue of the fading avatars changes behavior by reminding kids to pay attention to those images. Mundy says kids who can look around while talking have fewer learning problems, which can improve academic achievement.
"Children with autism who can talk and think and look around easily or more easily than their peers do better with reading comprehension," he says.
The researchers aren't sure if this virtual world can help kids in real classrooms. The next phase of research will help determine that.
Meanwhile, during his virtual reality exercise, Matthew Nystrom enthusiastically answers questions as he moves his head from left to right in almost mechanical motion. He tries to keep his eyes on the avatars as he talks about one of his favorite TV shows.
"Another of my personal favorites was extreme makeover home addition," says Nystrom. "I like it because I liked watching them doing good things for the people who deserved it."
The UC Davis researchers compliment Nystrom on a job well done.
The UC Davis Virtual Reality Lab is launching a new phase of four more years of study. They're looking for more Sacramento area students ages eight to fifteen to participate.
The next phase of the UC Davis virtual reality study will be more like a game. The avatars may turn away if you stop looking, or smile if you pay attention to them.