For people with autism navigating public transit, virtual reality help could be on the way

People with autism experience bus stops differently than neurotypical people, according to new research from researchers at the University of Missouri and the University of Georgia.

The research used virtual reality to develop an exact replica of a bus stop on the campus at the University of Cincinnati, said Noah Glaser, assistant professor in the MU College of Education and Human Development.

"Through the Lens of Artificial Intelligence: A Novel Study of Spherical Video-based Virtual Reality Usage in Autism and Neurotypical Participants" and "Programming for Generalization: Confronting Known Challenges in the Design of Virtual Reality Interventions for Autistic Users" were published in Computers & Education: X Reality.

Matthew Schmidt at the University of Georgia was the primary researcher on the project.

In the virtual reality environment, researchers can add to or take away stimuli, including sounds and people, Glaser said.

"We sought to create an environment that was a one-to-one replica," Glaser said. "We spent 2 1/2 years creating highly realistic 3D models. Everything about it was as realistic as possible."

People with autism provided feedback in the development, at one point causing researchers to start over from scratch, he said.

Public transportation is the most often-cited obstacle for all people with disabilities and people with autism have their own difficulties, Glaser said.

"There's chaos and complexity and things we take for granted," Glaser said. "There's social complexity. When a bus comes to a stop, do you wait for people to get off? There's all these subtle social cues."

Buses can be loud and crowded, he said.

"All of these things are overstimulation" for some with autism, he said.

In the virtual reality simulation, researchers could add signs to tell people where things are. The bus can be late or not show up at all.

The research used artificial intelligence to examine how the experiences for people with autism differed from that of neurotypical people. It determined what individuals were looking at and for how long.

People with autism often have different gaze patterns and may not look directly at other people, Glaser said.

At the simulated bus stop, Individuals with autism looked around more, focusing on individual objects for less time than neurotypical users.

"What they looked at was more randomized and for a shorter duration," Glaser said.

The research can be useful to help train neurodiverse individuals to use public transportation and to help people developing public transportation to better accommodate neurodiverse people, Glaser said.

Roger McKinney is the Tribune's education reporter. You can reach him at or 573-815-1719. He's on X at @rmckinney9.

This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Autism research uses artificial intelligence and virtual reality