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Hotchalk Global

news & tips

A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Second Life and the Autism Spectrum

Autism Awareness ribbonLast week I wrote about my graduate school class on Multi-User Virtual Environments, which in our class has meant Second Life.  It got me thinking about how these alternative realities can be used to help people negotiate THIS reality.

I just finished skimming some slides and reading two articles about autism, Asperger ‘s, and Second Life.


Articles: and

At a conference last year, I heard from Peggy Sheehy (avatar: Maggie Marat) and Bernajean Porter (avatar: Bernajena Pinazzo) about use of Second Life with emotionally troubled students who found they really had a lot to say once someone would take them seriously and listen. Our graduate school cohort’s talk of SL ‘s “affordances” (things you can do in Second Life that you can’t do in real life) got me thinking about autism. If you ‘ve ever read the book “A Friend Like Henry” by Nuala Gardner, then you ‘re familiar with the story of her son Dale, who is autistic. My husband is close friends with Dale ‘s father, Jim, and he shared with me a lot of what Jim and Nuala dealt with raising their son… and now a daughter too with autism… and how the most unassuming everyday thing – a pet dog – completely transformed Dale ‘s life and his interaction with the world around him.

These days, there ‘s an app for that: Second Life.

The biggest issue surrounding disorders on the autistic spectrum is social interaction. People with such disorders lack the ability to conduct face-to-face interaction the way most others can. It almost makes you wonder how many of history ‘s well-known eccentrics were simply regular folks on the spectrum. While social interaction is at the heart of Second Life, the MUVE offers two things that work really well in countering the effects of autism and Asperger ‘s: the computer-based game-like feel, and the ability to control the interaction (slow it down, choose when and how it happens, etc.) on one ‘s own terms.

Dale used to react very strongly and – to people around him – strangely to certain words or phrases. For some reason, his mother telling him she was proud of him would set him off. It wasn ‘t the meaning of the words; it was the shape or sound of the word “proud” itself.  At some point, Dale found that Henry, his family ‘s dog, had a very non-threatening, gentle face, and Jim found he could communicate with Dale more effectively by pretending to be the dog. Henry would encourage Dale to finish his eggs. Henry would remind Dale to put things away or finish his homework. Removing the face-to-face intensity of interaction made it possible for Dale to hear the meanings behind the communication. I believe he later said he knew it was his Dad doing the talking, but he accepted the arrangement because he could feel it working. Dale now plays in a rock band and has ab-sailed off the Firth of Forth bridge. He also attends university.

Bounce for Autism Event in Second LifeSecond Life, in its use of avatars, takes away some of the anxiety of interaction. The user is safely ensconced in his or her own space in the real world while traveling freely and interacting with others in the virtual world, unhindered by the real-world restraints imposed by autism. People with autism are intelligent, and they have a lot to say about a lot of things. Second Life can give them a chance to level their own playing field and practice in-world, potentially for later transfer of social skills into the real world.

This doesn ‘t address how I see this playing out in my classroom, but I teach in a computer lab in a private school, and we have our share of children with autism and Asperger ‘s, often placed in our setting because of their parents ‘ fear of placing them in public schools. I have had a child tell me that a piece of clip art, appearing larger than it needs to be on his screen, frightens him. It ‘s impossible for those of us not “on the spectrum” to understand what it ‘s like for those who are, but the biggest potential I could see, where my teaching situation is concerned, is getting my students interacting with each other in-world without allowing them to know which avatar belongs to which student to see if they make different friends or treat each other differently based on other factors (in-world appearance, talk of common real-world interests, etc.). This could lead to an analysis and group discussion of how we choose our friends or playmates, and what prejudices we have when we make such choices.

Image of Autism Awareness ribbon from Flickr user Beverly & Pack, some rights reserved, Creative Commons.

Image from Second Life Bounce for Autism event from Flickr user Ravenelle, some rights reserved, Creative Commons.

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