Honors Student Works to Shift Paradigm for Disability Inclusion in Virtual Reality Research

Ellie Bavuso sits next to her virtual reality headset she uses to model her game to help neurodivergent individuals.By William Lineberry
University College & Honors College

Ellie Bavuso has always been the type of person with more questions than answers. As a curious kid, Bavuso can recall asking their parents endless amounts of questions – amassing tons of information but still coming up with more questions that were yet to be answered.

But Bavuso knew, eventually, they would go to college, and it was there that they hoped to start doing their own research and answering the questions that had long bugged them throughout their adolescence and young adulthood.

While at Virginia Commonwealth University, Bavuso has begun answering those questions through undergraduate research.

Bavuso is a senior in the VCU Honors College majoring in biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. As a participant in the Honors Summer Undergraduate Research Project, Bavuso is continuing their research this summer with Dayanjan Wijesinghe, Ph.D., an associate professor in the School of Pharmacy’s Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcome Sciences. Bavuso’s project centers on designing and developing a virtual reality game that's custom-made to support individuals with autism.

“The idea behind the game is to model anxiety-inducing social situations [using a virtual reality headset] in a way where you can control the natural consequences,” Bavuso said.

Bavuso, who is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, personally encountered numerous questions regarding how to improve support for individuals with autism through various therapies and the use of existing and emerging technologies. Through Bavuso’s experiences, they identified a significant gap in resources for young adults with autism spectrum disorder.

This led to Bavuso studying dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and integrating that with virtual reality to help “gamify” a treatment that can help autistic individuals learn effective social behaviors.

“Gamifying and engaging with a serious game is a method that works really well with the autistic community,” Bavuso said. “It gets them excited and motivates them to learn, and using the dialectical behavior therapy really puts the autonomy and control back with the autistic person. It is about helping yourself handle the challenges of being a person who is autistic in a society that is not made for you.”   

A personal 'renaissance’

Bavuso’s game will have different situations preloaded for users to engage with and navigate through. The current scene has a user talking to a professor during their office hours about a testing accommodation. Another scene will have a user interacting with a doctor in the emergency room. Another scene will be set in a grocery store.

Users will be able to select a lot of the criteria through the scenes (such as the presenting gender of the individual they are interacting with) and test out different outcomes to help figure out which one is the most effective, Bavuso said.

Over the summer, Bavuso has been using their time in HSURP to help add to the userEllie Bavuso standing next to a mirror experience by creating AI-powered characters. The characters, rather than having written pre-loaded responses, will have audible text-to-speech responses that are based in real time. 

Bavuso credits AI for helping in both their personal and professional life. It helps with basic tasks – such as writing emails – that, as a neurodivergent person, sometimes took hours for them to complete. But it also helps them do substantial tasks such as coding a virtual reality game to help people with autism, Bavuso said.

“It [using ChatGPT] has been my own personal learning renaissance,” they said. “I only ever used to be able to conceptualize these ideas, like building an entire game from scratch, as a fantasy. This has allowed me a whole new way to communicate things that I never would have been able to before.”

Within the game, Bavuso has created a meadow with a cottage in it that, up until the project, only existed in their mind’s eye. But now, thanks to loading prompts into ChatGPT, the meadow is a safe space for all users within the game to go when they feel overwhelmed.

“It’s a beautiful way of bridging the connection gap, verbal or nonverbal, disabled or non-disabled,” Bavuso said. “Everyone will be able to move freely and be on an equal ground.”

It’s a beautiful way of bridging the connection gap, verbal or nonverbal, disabled or non-disabled. Everyone will be able to move freely and be on an equal ground.

An emphasis on advocacy

Outside of research, Bavuso has taken on an advocacy role for students with disabilities. Bavuso serves on the Disability Access to Higher Education Advisory Committee, a committee established by the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) with a primary focus on addressing the needs and challenges faced by students with disabilities in higher education. Bavuso is also the president of the Association of Students with Disabilities and Chronic Conditions (ASDCC), a VCU student organization that advocates for students on the campus and state levels.     

Chris Parthemos, assistant director of the Office of Student Accessibility and Educational Opportunity, said the ASDCC has shifted the culture at VCU.

"The ASDCC has always been a major force in advocacy for students with disabilities at VCU, and it has really grown under Ellie's leadership,” Parthemos said. “VCU has a strong commitment to DEI, and students like Ellie help us remember that accessibility always needs to be a part of that conversation.”

The ASDCC has forged an array of partnerships. That includes a focus on students with disabilities being involved in projects affecting them. One goal is to have researchers with disabilities on relevant teams rather than just being the subject of observation. In addition, the group helped to design and put on the Accessibility Achievement Ceremony in the spring to celebrate the accomplishment of graduating students with disabilities. As head of the regalia committee for the new ceremony, Bavuso had a hand in creating the ceremonial stole, whose half-dozen colored cords are entwined in representing the disability pride flag and the spectrum of conditions. Student volunteers assembled each one by hand.

“It was very much imbuing soul and love into the cords,” Bavuso said. “And they're all different and unique to match the unique lived experience of the students with disabilities.”

This past semester, Bavuso also did a qualitative research study on barriers professors face in accommodating students with special needs. Looking forward, Bavuso hopes to continue developing their virtual reality project after graduating next spring. They hope to enroll in a graduate program while continuing to manage their own advocacy organization, Innovative Inclusion.

“I want to build a comprehensive tool,” Bavuso said. “I want to provide resources to people with disabilities and chronic conditions using creative problem-solving.”  

Amelia Heymann with VCU Public Relations contributed to this article.