Virtual reality makes real-world difference for student with autism

Churchill County High School speech pathologist Justin Worthy talks to Logan Evans as he works in a virtual reality program, in Fallon, Nev., on Friday, April 26, 2019. Evans, who is autistic, has show a significant change in his verbal skills when he’s using the VR programs. Photo by Cathleen Allison/Nevada Momentum

By Teri Vance

As 18-year-old Logan Evans donned the virtual reality headset in the library of Churchill County High School, his speech pathologist, Justin Worthy, asked him a string of questions.

“Do you know what world you’re going into?”



“Can you read it to me?”

“White Winter.”

On the surface, it may seem like a routine exchange. But for Evans it was anything but average.

Evans, who is autistic, has been unable for most of his life to answer questions.

Instead, he would repeat the question.

When Worthy learned the high school library had joined a group of early adopters in a virtual reality program — offered through the Nevada State Library — he brought Evans down to give it a try. Something almost magical happened when Evans immersed himself into the virtual worlds, especially exploring the outdoors.

“When he’s in the program, you get an instant response,” Worthy said. “It was amazing to me to see the difference. When I get that response, I am overjoyed.”

The improvement doesn’t stop when the headset comes off. Evans continues to show increased articulation, which will make his life better in the real world.

“Answering questions is a critical skill,” Worthy said. “He’s able to make choices for himself if he can answer a question. He can advocate for himself.”

It will help him in everyday life, and especially in his jobs where he works in the school cafeteria, Greenwave Cafe and at Fallon’s Blue Sky Thrift Store.

The virtual reality program was implemented by librarian Holly McPherson this year.

“The funding from the 2017 Nevada Legislature has kick- started a powerful opportunity for Nevada libraries,” said Deputy State Librarian Tammy Westergard.

The one-time allocation of money was used over the last biennium for collection development, bookmobile services, statewide databases and emerging technology.

The Nevada Library Association is asking for $1.5 million in permanent funding to continue the programs put in place over the past two years.

“The ability to learn in 3-D is proving to increase critical thinking and seems to ignite drive and excitement for both students and teachers,” said Westergard, the Nevada State Library project lead.

Logan Evans draws characters in a virtual reality art program at Churchill County High School in Fallon, Nev., on Friday, April 26, 2019. Evans, who is autistic, has show a significant change in his verbal skills when he’s using the VR programs. Photo by Cathleen Allison/Nevada Momentum

The virtual reality system in the Churchill County Library is available for general use to all students, who can use it on their breaks and during lunch.

“Science and health teachers bring their classes in,” McPherson said. “They can look inside a cell and travel through the blood system or they can open up molecules of different organisms. There’s all kinds of things they can do.”

The value for students with special needs was an unforeseen benefit of the program.

“For some reason, when Logan has the headset on, he’s able to respond,” McPherson said. “For Logan, it has been dramatic. And I don’t think we’re still using it to its fullest potential.”

Worthy would also like to see the program continue.

“I definitely feel like it would be beneficial for other students,” he said. “It could be beneficial in a lot of ways for my language kiddos, possibly by helping with vocabulary or long-term memory.”

Meanwhile, Evans continues to progress as he explores virtual worlds.

“What’s that, Logan?,” Worthy queried.

“It’s a tree,” Evans answered.

“What color are the leaves, Logan?”

“Pink and red.”

Evans knew he’d done well.

“Nice work,” he said to himself.

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of articles to highlight library programs funded by the Nevada Legislature. The Nevada Library Association is asking for permanent funding in this year’s legislative session.

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