EMAT Students Showcase Neurodiversity in Augmented Reality Experience

Growing up, students Rebecca Haywood and Riley Schaefer saw little to no representation of neurodivergent characters in children’s media.

When the two took the augmented reality in children’s literature course offered through their program and Design Innovation last year, they wanted to change that for others. So, they created an interactive story where readers immerse themselves in the playground fun of two neurodivergent characters.

Titled “Timber and Ricky Go to School,” the story starts when a character invites the “reader” into a classroom. There, they have the opportunity to interact with an array of characters.

Timber and Ricky go to school

After class comes the playground games. That’s when Ricky and Timber meet, ultimately becoming friends.

“Timber helped Ricky socialize,” the story reads, “he started to like it to his surprise.”

A raccoon and a tiger, the characters are a subtle exploration of how neurodivergent children interact with and experience the world. Although it’s never directly stated, Ricky has autism and Timber has ADHD.

A raccoon and a tiger interact in an augmented reality setting.

“We tried to make it very intuitive,” said Schaefer, a sophomore emerging media and technology major. “Everyone knows what school is. Everyone knows what the playground is. Everyone knows the social problems of getting your first group of friends.”

The inspiration for the two characters couldn’t have come any easier.

“I am timber,” Schaefer said. “This is Ricky,” he added, pointing to Haywood.

Two students and a dog standing in front of a digital screen.

All projects in the course started with background research on similar children’s literature. Together, the groups brought their story ideas to the library and pulled books based on their theme.

“​​When it came to our group, where we just wanted books based on neurodiversity, the piles were significantly smaller,” said Haywood, the project manager and a graduate student in user experience design.

Still, the lack of resources only motivated the group to continue.

Schaefer handled the 3D modeling, while Haywood and Briahna McCullough wrote the story. Tiffany Marks and Eddie Lampert illustrated.

The group’s work culminated last March when they presented their story to the Julie Billiart School in Akron on March 8th for Read Across America day.

There, the story came to life as dozens of students ran around the classroom, embracing their new friends Ricky and Timber. Some teachers and students even asked when they could read the next story, Haywood said.

“In a very beautiful way, they were sort of teaching an inclusive way to sort of embrace neurodiversity,” said Ava Avnisan, an assistant professor at San Diego State University, who previously instructed the children’s literature course at Kent State. “And I think that's a really, really important story to share with the world.”

POSTED: Wednesday, May 22, 2024 02:26 PM
Updated: Wednesday, May 22, 2024 03:11 PM
Alton Northup
Rebecca Haywood and Riley Schaefer