Autism and Second Life

It was so wonderful to find the following article that I have tried to summarise below. Enjoy and then think about it….

Torley Wong who is a project manager at Linden Labs in San Francisco, which created Second Life, is not the only person with an autism spectrum disorder who prefers online communication to meeting people in the flesh. In the past few years, people with all forms of ASD — from Asperger’s to the more severe forms, known as “low-functioning” or “classic” autism — have taken to the Web, joining virtual worlds, writing blogs and posting videos on Web sites such as YouTube.

Torley uses interactions inside the virtual world to learn more about how to socialize off-line. He buys “gestures” — animations of avatars making faces — and plays them back to himself. “I can observe gestures, and watch them repeatedly, to learn body language,” he says. “It seems very odd off-line to tell someone to keep smiling for me, I want to pick up on that.”

Not all autistic Web users are interested in learning to behave in a more conventional way. Laurent Mottron, an autism researcher and doctor at the University of Montreal in Canada, has noticed quite the opposite. “People with autism are using the Web in a totally different way,” he says. “They have a social drive, but the exchange does not go through non-verbal stuff or emotional sharing, what they are interested in is sharing information.” This is why communication through the Web is particularly appealing, he says. “It bypasses all the non-verbal stuff, which they are not interested in.”

One example is Michelle Dawson, an autistic woman who recently joined Mottron as a research collaborator. As well as her own blog, she has also set up online forums where contributors, many of whom have autism, exchange research papers and discuss autism-related issues. “They talk very seriously. They exchange information which is also verified by sources, evidence-based issues,” says Mottron. That is the strength of the Web, he says. “It can be used by crazy teenagers to chat, or by autistics to exchange very serious information.”

Many blogs and Web sites created by people with autism promote the idea of “neural diversity”, the notion that the condition is not a disease that must be cured, but simply a different brain “wiring”.

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